Well, they’re in.
The Philadelphia 76ers are in the playoffs. They might not be there very long, and once they exit, their leading scorer might be leaving as well. But for now, all is well in the City of Brotherly Love.
The Sixers won a game they were supposed to win, had to win, needed to win, pulling away for a 105-87 road victory over the shorthanded New Jersey Nets that clinched their second playoff berth in as many years under coach Doug Collins.
The Sixers were supposed to beat the Nets, who were without All-Star point guard Deron Williams and playing out the string. They had to beat the Nets in order to put together three wins for the first time in a month and develop some positive mojo heading into the playoffs. And they needed to notch a W to render Wednesday’s trip to Milwaukee utterly meaningless.
From John N. Mitchell of the Philadelphia Daily News: “Although the effort wasn’t as strong as Saturday’s at Indiana, the Sixers did jump out to a fast start. That seemed to deflate much of the interest that New Jersey, playing without injured All-Star guard Deron Williams, had in winning. The Sixers had an efficient first quarter and at one point grew the lead to 14 before settling on a 10-point advantage at the half. Perhaps the halftime celebration by the Nets, in which many former players were introduced, brought new life as New Jersey cut the lead to 63-62 late in the third quarter. But Thaddeus Young, who had zero shots or rebounds in his first 11 minutes of the first half, made all five of his shots and scored 10 points in the final 3 minutes, 42 seconds of the quarter as the lead grew to 76-68 at the end of three. “I didn’t even want to look at the stats [at halftime], I knew I hadn’t taken a shot,” said Young, who finished with 15 points and missed just one of his eight shots. “I didn’t have a rebound or anything. I was just thinking to go out there with a lot of energy and . . . if we win, I know I’ll be happy and know that I gave it my all. Then when I went out there, I got hot.”
It may not be a coincidence that the Sixers are playing better now that center Spencer Hawes – still coming off the bench – appears to be entirely re-acclimated with his teammates. While his numbers have not approached his early season production, his skills as a facilitator in an unselfish offense are welcome and necessary to the team’s success. Three straight wins on the road to enter the postseason party through the front door gives the Sixers something to build on as they prepare for this weekend.
More from Mitchell: “Over the weekend, 76ers coach Doug Collins had visions of his team making a pleasant trip up the New Jersey Turnpike – if such a thing can be done – settling into the team hotel on Sunday, then showing up Monday night and not engaging in any of the sappiness that was to transpire at the Prudential Center, where the New Jersey Nets were playing their last game of the season. As he said Sunday afternoon, “We don’t want to feel pressure; we want to apply pressure. Let’s apply the pressure and get back on the bus and start thinking about what we have in front of them.” After making almost 54 percent of their shots and getting some clutch play out of Andre Iguodala (who left the game late with a bruised calf), Thaddeus Young, Elton Brand, and just about everybody else who played in a 105-87 win over the Nets, the Sixers did just that. Along the way, they guaranteed a return trip to the playoffs, in which they will face either Chicago or Miami. They played the type of basketball – albeit against a bad opponent – that was reminiscent of the way they had played earlier in the season, not the way they had looked for most of their games after the all-star break.”
The Sixers (34-30) still have a shot to finish seventh, although they would have to inch ahead of the New York Knicks (34-30), who hold the tiebreaker. It says here that Philadelphia is better off remaining eighth and playing Chicago – which it played tough in all three meetings, winning once with Derrick Rose on the floor – rather than Miami, which dominated in sweeping the four-game season series.
Whomever they play, the Sixers and their fans could be taking a last look at Lou Williams, their leading scorer and best fourth-quarter option. Having the best season of his seven-year career spent entirely in Philadelphia, Williams plans to opt out this summer and would be an highly attractive free agent.
Some reporting from Mitchell: “Philadelphia 76ers guard Lou Williams will opt out of the final year of his contract at the end of this season and become an unrestricted free agent, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation. If he were not to opt out, Williams would be due $6.4 million from the Sixers. Said the source: “He’s indicated that he’s not going to pick up his option. All indications are that he’s going to opt out.” Reached at courtside via telephone before the 76ers, fighting for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, game at Indiana on Saturday, 76ers general manager Rod Thorn said that he had not spoken with his leading scorer about his contract but acknowledged that Williams can opt out his contract and become an unrestricted free agent.”
Speaking of exits, it was the final home game in New Jersey for the Nets, who trotted out some of their stars from their 35-year stay in the Garden State. Among them were Derrick Coleman, Otis Birdsong and the inimitable Darryl Dawkins, who is probably more famous for his days with the Sixers.
Earlier Monday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stopped blasting President Barack Obama long enough to blast the Nets for leaving his state.
From David Porter of the Associated Press: “The typically blunt Christie kicked things off roughly four hours before the tipoff when he said he would shed no tears over the departure of the Nets, who lost their final home game 105-87 the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night. “My message to them is, goodbye,” Christie said at an afternoon news conference at Newark Beth Israel Hospital where he signed a bill to promote organ and tissue donation. “You don’t want to stay, we don’t want you.” The Nets have played the last two of their 35 years in New Jersey in Newark at the Prudential Center Arena, the high-tech home built by the city of Newark and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils in 2007. The Nets’ owners in the 1990s had sought to move the team to Newark from the Meadowlands but couldn’t work out financing a new arena. They eventually sold the franchise in 2004 to real estate developer Bruce Ratner, whose plan all along was to move the team to Brooklyn, and the Nets wound up in Newark as they waited for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to be completed. Christie scoffed at the team’s decision to choose New York over New Jersey. “That’s one of the most beautiful arenas in America they have a chance to play in, it’s in one of the country’s most vibrant cities, and they want to leave here and go to Brooklyn?” he asked. “Good riddance, see you later. I think there’ll be some other NBA team who may be looking to relocate and they might look at that arena and the fan base in the New Jersey and New York area and say, ‘This is an opportunity to increase our fan base and try something different.’”
Hey, Guv, I’ve lived in both places for extended periods. You can have the left side of Manhattan. Knock yourself out.
In the Western Conference, the seemingly unstoppable San Antonio Spurs clinched the top seed with another rout, victiming the Trail Blazers, 124-89, in their home finale.
Remember that wild game at Dallas where Gregg Popovich stayed with his subs for the entire fourth quarter and overtime and nearly pulled off an unbelievable comeback? San Antonio is 36-7 since that loss. Its current win streak is at eight, all by double digits and by an average of 20.8 points over a 12-day span.
From Tim Griffin of the San Antonio Express-News: “The best basketball of the season is coming as the Spurs charge into the playoffs. The Spurs notched their season high for assists and matched their largest victory of the season Monday night with an impressive 124-89 victory over Portland. During the last several years, Gregg Popovich has focused on offensive improvement because of his team’s inability to play defense like it did during the championship era. The transformation has been remarkable. We’ve started to see it this year as it leads the league in 3-point percentage and is capable of scoring points in bunches. “Looking at this team, it’s changed from a couple years ago,” Spurs forward Boris Diaw said. “Now, it’s a different pace. This team is scoring a lot on fast breaks and that is something new. (We are) still playing the same strong defense and more firepower.” It’s a change from Popovich’s grinding teams that won championships, but weren’t celebrated for their aesthetic qualities. “Everybody is dangerous and it is tough for the other team to figure us out defensively,” Diaw said. “Anybody can score anytime and we share the ball until we get a wide-open shot. That is why we have been so efficient.” Popovich’s transformation impressed Portland coach Kaleb Canales, who was raving about the Spurs’ offensive abilities before Monday’s game. “Where do you start?” Canales said about the Spurs. “They are a special group playing at a high level now, together. And one of the things they don’t get credit for is how they share the basketball.”
The Spurs finish up with road games Wednesday at Phoenix and Thursday at Golden State. Based on what happened last season, they will probably rest their regulars, potentially a huge break for the Suns. But it also means their streak of 50-win seasons – still a possibility in a 66-game campaign – likely will end at 11.
There may be some folks out there who are still dismissing the Spurs as too old or not athletic enough. These are probably the same folks who touch the door with the “Wet Paint” sign and don’t look both ways before crossing the street.
Think about how the Spurs and Thunder have played over the last two weeks and consider a potential conference finals showdown. Now ask yourself which team has the edge in physical and mental toughness, heart and smarts, plus the comfort of Game 7 on its home floor.
Are you still dismissing the Spurs?
- You know who has the longest current home winning streak? The Grizzlies, who won their 10th straight game at FedEx Forum with a 109-101 victory over the Cavaliers. Tony Allen sent a reminder to media members voting for Defensibe Player of the Year with a franchise-record eight steals, including one that sealed matters in the final 30 seconds. Memphis is one-half game behind the LA Clippers for fourth in the West and the home-court edge in the first round. Cleveland is 5-20 since March 12.
- They were scoreboard-watching in the Bradley Center and got the bad news from New Jersey late in the third quarter, when the Bucks actually trailed the Toronto Raptors. To their credit, the Bucks rallied for a 92-86 victory as Ersan Ilyasova scored 10 of his 19 points in the final six minutes. Milwaukee hosts Philadelphia on Wednesday in a game that could have meant everything but now means nothing, unless you’re pumped up for the Craig Brackins-Jon Brockman matchup. The Raptors have lost four in a row and eight of 10.
- Sixers fans who were scoreboard-watching got an added bonus when the host Wizards bombed the Bobcats, 101-73. It was the 21st straight loss for Charlotte (7-57), which is an unfathomable 50 games under .500 in a 66-game season. The Bobcats – who have lost by an average of 16.2 points during their skid – visit the Orlando on Wednesday and host New York on Thursday. The Magic are banged up and the Knicks may not need (or want) the win, so Charlotte has a chance to get the one W that will allow it to avoid the worst winning percentage in NBA history. But coach Paul Silas summed it up best when he said, “If we don’t play a perfect game, we have a hard time winning.” Oh, yeah, the Wizards have won a season-high four in a row, which apparently was good enough to earn the inexplicably employed GM Ernie Grunfeld a contract extension.
- Unable to climb or slide in the East, the third-seeded Pacers rested starters Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and George Hill in a 103-97 home win over the Pistons. Paul George scored 27 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter. Indiana almost certainly will face Orlando in the first round of the playoffs.