Thursday, April 28, 2011

Defeat with honor, and a side of hope

The Sixers' season ended tonight, in just about the exact number of games that most people thought it would. In crunch time, they didn't get stops, missed free throws, and had no better idea than Andre Iguodala in Hero Mode, which worked until it didn't.

From a strict talent standpoint and the idea that only championships matter, they might have been better off tanking.

I could have written the same lede for the past five years. And if you didn't actually watch the games, you'd think I was silly for thinking anything but.

And this year, it would have been grievously unfair.

In four out of five games, Philly was right there with the Heat, despite having little in the way of a go-to guy (Lou Williams and Iguodala get the chances, not that they are actually all that great at them), no one on the floor that regularly demands a double-team, only one big-time defender against a team that requires two, and not nearly enough length inside and half-court scoring to win in a slowdown game, which is what's going to take the Heat out. They did it with Evan Turner going from out of the rotation at the end of the regular season to on the floor and contributing, even defensively, in the playoffs. They found out what they had with Thaddeus Young (i.e., a great bench player that they can not overpay), developed Williams into enough of a visible asset that they can probably move him to a team that's blind to his flaws, and gave Iguodala a national spotlight to harass LeBron James into clear second banana status. They even resuscitated Jodie Meeks after it looked like Dwyane Wade was going to end his career.

And most importantly, they established that this is now, and will be for the next ten years, Jrue Holiday's team. Remember that Jrue is still too young to drink legally, and still has miles to go, especially on defense. And as good as he was in this series, with solid stepping up defense against both Wade and James, he still needed to do tons more to force this series to go long, especially against the corpse that is Mike Bibby.

But had they just hit a few more free throws in tonight's game, or gotten a little luckier when the Heat scrubs started hitting threes, this series would be on to the real damage stage for the Heat, who looked good and panicked for much of crunch time tonight. You saw Heat technicals, James defaulting to bailout threes, freakishly good free throw shooting masking crunch time inadequacies -- James didn't miss, and neither did Joel Anthony -- and basically, all of the regular season shakiness that made the Heat such a poor idea against good teams.

The Sixers aren't really a good team; no team that starts Spencer Hawes at center, or has anyone who is a real threat to score more than 20 points in a game routinely outside of transition buckets, can be a really good team. But in six months, maybe with Turner becoming more consistent, Iguodala moved for a better big, or Hawes pushed to a bench role that better suits his, um, game... they could be good.

How good? Well, in And a couple of years from now, with Holiday becoming a top 5 option at point guard... the Heat will still be waiting (but as we saw this week, vulnerable), and the Bulls will still be a serious problem. But no one else in the East appears to have too much more ceiling in front of them, unless you believe that the Knicks are going to overcome their ownership, or that the Nets are going to be a lot better. Boston's got to get old at some point without a fresh "trade" from an ex-player, and I'm just not sold on anyone else. (Of course, Dwight Howard could stay in conference to form another super team, but I suspect he's following the Shaq Mode of going to El Lay.)

Anyway... I feel a lot better about being a Sixers fan than I did a year ago. Or six months ago, or three. By the past decade standards of this franchise, that's a win, and a pretty big one, really.

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