No matter where you look, you're not going to find the Sixers getting much love from the playoff predictors. Everywhere in the NBA community, it's Heat in Five, Heat in Four, Heat in Two and the Sixers are going to be so demoralized that they forfeit the series, or wait a minute, you mean the Heat don't just have a first round bye? Nobody, and I mean nobody, is predicting the Sixers to pull off the upset. And can you blame them? A team that overachieved to get to 41-41, against a team that could potentially be a dynasty in the making? Which they went 0-3 against in the regular season, and seem overmatched against in just about every comaprison?
No, it's not some weird national prejudice that has the Heat as unequivocal favorites in this series, and I'm not going to be the first person to tell you that the odds should say otherwise. Without an injury, a deus ex machina, or a couple blind strokes of dumb f'ing luck, it's going to be hard bordering on impossible for the Sixers to win this series. But does that mean we shouldn't be watching anyway? Of course not. Here's a couple things to look out for in this series, that could be of interest even if the team doesn't end up winning.
- Can they win one of the first two games in Miami? Students of recent Sixers history will of course note that they've had pretty good luck with game ones, winning in both Detroit in '08 and Orlando in '09 in series that they were similar underdogs (though maybe not quite to the degree that they are here). And Miami has a disadvantage that neither of those teams had—complete nationwide scorn, which could see the media take up the Sixers as a grassroots movement of sorts if it loos like they even have a chance to hang with the Heat. It could make us a fun story for a while, have people feeling good about the team even if they eventually bow out for the series.
- Can the team's bench give them any sort of advantage? As was pointed out on a recent Bill Simmons podcast, the advantage that the Sixers should have with their bench—one of the best in the NBA, as opposed to the Heat's, which is undoubtedly one of the weakest—is minimized by the fact that the Heat can play their big three nearly 48 minutes a game in the playoffs, and not necessitate the drop-off. Still, they're gonna have to dip into their stocks of Joel Anthonys and Eddie Houses for at least a little while, and if Thad and Lou can come in at that point and burst out in the one-or-two-man 8-0 runs that they're certainly capable of, it could keep us competitive in a number of games that would otherwise get ugly real quick.
- Can Jrue and Evan give us hope for the future? Neither of the team's two young pups have seen anything like playoff basketball before, and the experience here could be absolutely invaluable for the pair moving forward. Can the two step up, show maturity beyond their years, and whet the fans' appetites for what could be a number of playoff appearances to come for the two as Liberty Ballers? Remember, Evan had his best game of the season's first two months in the home opener against Miami, and Jrue ended the season on something of a tear, posting double digits in scoring in each of his last 12 games. Not only would strong performances from the the two help the team immeasurably in the series, it would show progress towards the future for the Sixers that would certainly NOT be gleaned by giving Andres Nocioni 20 minutes a game. (You listening, Dougie?)
- Can anyone on this team make a big shot late in the game? For all his late-game failures in the two seasons since, Andre Iguodala did hit some absolutely enormous shots in the first-round series against Orlando in '09. Expecting a repeat performance might not be realistic, but if someone on this damn team could show a willingness to step up in such situations—even just Jodie Meeks hitting a dagger three with a minute and a half to go—it would certainly go a long way against a team in the Heat that showed almost as impressive a knack for late-game choke jobs as the Sixers did over the course of the season. Donyell Marshall is not working through that door, kids, and for the last time, using Jason Kapono as a floor-spacer and potential big-shot-maker in crunch time is absolutely, 100% not an option.
- Can this team try to actually win this series? Look, it's not impossible. It's pretty close—this isn't hockey or baseball, where once you get in, any team can win. If the Sixers were to pull it off, this would almost certainly be the biggest NBA post-season upset of the 21st century. But it wouldn't be the biggest seeding-wise—the 8th-seeded Warriors took down the top-seeded Mavs half a decade ago. And nobody expected the sub-.500 Hawks to be able to hang with the regular-season-best Celtics three years ago, and the Hawks ended up pushing them to seven games—as did the 7th-seeded Bulls a year later. Would I bet on it happening? No. Would I believe it was likely to happen up until the final seconds ticked off the Sixers' fourth victory in the series? No. But it's not impossible. The Heat aren't world-beaters yet, and there have been stretches this season where the Sixers have played as well as anyone. A couple breaks early, and who knows? Philly could end up being the surprise story of the playoffs.
It's worth watching to see all this stuff. And anyway, as Michael Levin pointed out yesterday, even if the team gets swept, it's been way more fun to watch them this year than anyone could have predicted, and we should leave with a good feeling about the season regardless. The future, if not exceptionally bright for the team, is also not nearly as dim as was previously anticipated, and next season should be an interesting one regardless. So let's watch this series without expectation, and just hope that our boys can show the Heat, themselves and the world a little something, and see where it goes from there. Miracles happen every day in this world, you know.
3:30 tip from the American Airlines Arena. Let's get heroic.