With “The Doctor,’’ a.k.a. Julius Erving, officially welcomed back into the house, the “joint was jumping’’ as they used to say in his day.
Meanwhile Dr. J’s old teammate turned coach, Doug Collins, pleaded with his team to keep plugging away in what appeared to be a lost cause, urged on by the some 20,000 red-and-white towel waving banshees, screaming “Defense. Defense’’ at their top of their lungs.
The NBA playoffs returned to the home court of what the new owners of Philadelphia 76ers proudly declare “the third most winningest team in NBA history,’’ as if all those bronzes can measure up to the gold the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, Spurs and Pistons have hauled in through the years.
With the music blaring their old theme song “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Sixers. Ten. Nine. Eight. Seventy-Sixers,’’ the 2012 edition took the Wells Fargo Center court bent on proving the way they had dismantled the Derrick Rose-less Bulls Tuesday was not a fluke.
Some 2 1/2 hours later, having overcome woeful shooting, a huge rebounding disparity and other ills that dug them a 14-point fourth-quarter hole by playing the fourth quarter of their lives to stun the Bulls 79-74, even the cynics are starting to be convinced.
These Sixers just might be hanging around the playoffs for a while.
“I told them `I don’t want you thinking about the consequences,’’’ said Collins after a startling 23-5 run over the last nine minutes enabled his No. 8 seeded club to take a 2-1 lead over the top-seeded Bulls pending tomorrow’s pivotal Game 4. ”The greatest thing I ever learned from Michael Jordan was he said ‘Greatness has no consequence.’
“That’s what I’ve tried to instill in these guys.’’
No one’s calling these Sixers great.
They’re undersized, not a particularly good shooting team and their pattern all year has been if they don’t win going away, then they lose. Prior to this, an astounding 29 of their 36 victories — including Tuesday’s 109-92 rout of the Bulls — had been by double figures. By contrast ,they’d pulled out only five games by five or less points.
But to have a chance in the playoffs — where the games grind to a halt offensively, where each possession becomes more and more crucial as the pressure mounts, where the whistles are often silent even as play becomes more physical, you have to learn to win the close ones.
This night the Sixers did.
“One stop becomes two, then becomes three,’’ said center Spencer Hawes, the unlikely scoring hero with 21 points, while the more celebrated Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand combined for just five — all from Iguodala. ”Then we stepped up at the other end and executed down the stretch.”
Certainly it didn’t hurt that the Bulls, already reeling from the loss of Rose, had to go without fiery Joakim Noah down the stretch.
After grotesquely turning his ankle when he came down on Iguodala’s foot on a third quarter drive to the hoop, writhing on the floor in agony, Noah somehow managed to stay in the game. But eventually the pain was too much and by the end of the night the sight of Noah—laboring on crutches as he slowly made his way to the Sixers’ lockerroom for x-rays, was difficult to watch.
While Collins has all the empathy in the world for his weakened opponent, he also has a job to do. “Derrick Rose is their motor,’’ said Collins “but I always thought when they’re playing well Noah is the soul of their team.”
“They missed them. But you’ve got to take advantage of those situations or you may never get the chance again.’’
With Hawes, Jrue Holiday and especially Evan Turner playing maniacally at both ends, the Sixers did just that. Down 67-53 after Rip Hamilton buried a 3-pointer with 10:16 left, they brought the Sixers back from the dead.
Chicago would manage just seven points from there. Philadelphia not only got the stops on defense, but finally managed to get it going offensively. Most of that came from the line, as the Sixers went right at the Noah-less Bulls with impunity.
Eventually, after Holiday followed up his own miss, Lou Williams knocked down a jumper, Hawes swished one from just inside the arc to put the Sixers up for the first time since the half, 72-71. Moments later, clinging to a 75-74 lead after John Lucas III drained a trey for the Bulls first points in nearly five minutes, Turner came up with what Collins called the Sixers biggest play of the year,. battling among the trees to throw up three shots, finally drawing a foul the third time.
When Turner calmly drilled both at the line, then Luol Deng—shackled by Iguodala and held to a mere five points—tossed up a brick from beyond the arc, the Sixers had seized control of the series.
Now, can they maintain it, something which Iguodala knows the Sixers failed to do as the lower seed in 2008 and 09 vs. the Pistons and Magic respectively?
“It’s an important win, but Game 4 will be more important,’’ he said matter of factly.
“Our job coming here was to get a win,’’ said Hamilton, who was on that 2008 Detroit team which battled back from a 1-2 deficit to take three straight from Philly. “We let one slip.
“But it won’t be easy.’’
The confetti littering the court told you this wasn’t just an ordinary win. So did the presence of Dr. J in the house.
Erving being named the Sixers new Strategic Advisor and goodwill ambassador. The Sixers hope it’s the start of making them relevant again in the NBA, which has been a rarity since Doc left the scene, neither Charles Barkley nor Allen Iverson ever quite filling his shoes.
Now the torch has been passed to Evan Turner, Jrue Holiday Spencer Hawes, who for at least one night did their part.
Can they build on that, making the Philadelphia 76ers once again a team to be reckoned with?
Truth be told, they’re a ways from that.
But at least for one night, folks again could “Stand Up for the Sixers in those Seats You’ll Never Sit In,” as their old marketing slogan used to say…
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known no as Kobe’s dad). He has won awards from the Pro Basketball Writer’s Association and North Jersey Press Club. His other claim to fame is driving Rick Mahorn to a playoff game after missing the team bus. Follow him on Twitter.