A couple of months ago, I wrote a column about how NBA commissioner David Stern’s voiding of the original Chris Paul trade had made a mockery of the New Orleans Hornets, who following the approved Chris Paul trade were making no effort to compete.
There was predictable backlash, mostly from Hornets fans who disagreed with my premise that making the playoffs – no matter how short your stay – is always better than intentionally stinking up the joint for several years in a misguided effort to get lucky through the draft and become a contender before all those lottery picks come due for max contracts.
To reinforce my point, I present the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 76ers broke out of the gate to a surprising 20-9 start this season. Approaching the All-Star break, they were one of the four or five best teams in the league. They appeared to be on pace for a division title and a high seed.
But the Sixers began to unravel in a stretch of injuries and inconsistency. They lost 21 of their next 32 games to fall to 31-30. With one week left in the season, they were clinging to the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed and had five games remaining, all on the road. There were more than a few observers who felt the Sixers would be better served by missing the playoffs and getting into the draft lottery rather than being obliterated by Chicago or Miami in the first round.
However, a funny thing happened en route to a predictable early playoff elimination. It was Memorial Day Weekend, and the Sixers were still playing.
In fact, Philadelphia was four minutes away from stunning the Boston Celtics in TD Garden in Game 7 and reaching the Eastern Conference finals.
“The game could have gone either way,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I felt going into this game it would go down to the wire. This team is hard to get away from. They never let up on the pressure because they have so many guys. They keep attacking.”
Good thing they didn’t tank, huh?
Sixers coach Doug Collins believes every playoff game is worth 10 regular-season games in terms of experience. His team played 13 playoff games, which equates to nearly two seasons of basketball education crammed into one month for his young, talented team.
“I learned a lot,” said Sixers guard Jrue Holiday, who is all of 21 years old and nearly tripled his postseason experience.
What did the Hornets learn this season? How to play spoiler? How to look like you’re trying when you’re really not? How to wait until next year, and the year after, and the year after that?
Yes, we all know the Sixers caught a couple of huge breaks against the Chicago Bulls, who lost Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to injuries. Those breaks were no different from the break the Memphis Grizzlies caught last year when they faced the San Antonio Spurs and Manu Ginobili’s busted elbow.
And yes, a matchup with the Celtics was a somewhat favorable one for the Sixers, given their advantages of youth and speed. That was no different from the Golden State Warriors drawing the Dallas Mavericks and their huge expectations in the first round five years ago.
The Sixers were four games over .500 in the regular season. And they were four minutes away from playing for the right to go to the NBA Finals.
“The Sixers are a pain in the ass,” Rivers said. “They are a tough basketball team. I don’t think people gave them their respect all year. They are difficult to play against. That is a well-coached and well-prepared team. They play extremely hard.”
This is why you keep grinding, even when it looks like your season is falling apart. This is why you always play to win, no matter what the odds.
This is why you don’t tank.
This postseason run offers no guarantees for the Sixers. They are not assured of making the playoffs next season, let alone putting together another deep run. They still need more size, better shooting and a stud scorer who might come in handy in the last four minutes of a Game 7 on the road.
But what the Sixers no longer need is playoff experience. They have seven rotation players 25 or younger who now will settle for nothing less than playing for the game’s highest stakes for the rest of their careers.
Good thing they didn’t tank, huh?
The draft lottery is Wednesday. Good luck, Hornets fans.
TRIVIA: Which two teams have the longest current run of reaching the conference semifinals? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Thursday’s editions of the Register Citizen in Connecticut ran a story on Game 6 between Boston and Philadelphia that included a subhead that read, “Sixers tie it up again as series shifts to Boston.” Which was fine, except “shifts” was missing the F. (Thanks, Deadspin.)
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace, making his second straight appearance in this space and trying to take the heat off coach Mike Brown:
“Mike wasn’t out there guarding Kevin (Durant). That was me. Kevin scored on me. Mike didn’t miss that 3-point shot. I missed it. Mike didn’t come into camp out of shape. Wait … he did come in out of shape. Mike is a fat ass.”
LINE OF THE WEEK: LeBron James, Miami at Indiana, May 20: 44 minutes, 14-27 FGs, 12-16 FTs, six offensive rebounds, 18 total rebounds, nine assists, two steals, two blocks, five turnovers, 40 points in a 101-93 win. With the Heat facing a 3-1 deficit, James did it all in a thoroughly dominant performance that temporarily silenced his detractors.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Ray Allen, Boston at Philadelphia, May 23: 26 minutes, 4-11 FGs, 1-5 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, three rebounds, zero assists, zero steals, zero blocks, three turnovers, six fouls, nine points in a 92-85 loss. The bone spurs were clearly affecting Allen’s shot – and his ability to stay in front of anyone on defense. He was briefly benched in the fourth quarter in favor of Marquis Daniels.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Oklahoma City at San Antonio, May 27. We won’t insult the East by saying this is the opener of the de facto NBA Finals. But it will be a better series, and TNT has it. The teams are a combined 16-1 in the playoffs, and virtually everyone in each team’s management knows each other.
TRILLION WATCH: We now have a tie for the top lack of effort in the postseason as Miami Heat forward Juwan Howard – pressed into “action” by Udonis Haslem’s suspension – registered a 4 trillion in Thursday’s clincher at Indiana. That matches the 4 trillion by Boston’s Ryan Hollins on May 4. Troy Murphy and Andrew Goudelock of the Lakers and Marquis Daniels and E’Twaun Moore of the Celtics also had trillions this week.
TWO MINUTES: The Heat lost their first two games after All-Star forward Chris Bosh went down with an abdominal strain and appeared to be in trouble, with LeBron James playing major minutes at power forward and a limited Dwyane Wade engaging in a highly visible shouting match with coach Erik Spoelstra, who ordered his team to take a day off prior to Game 4 vs. the Pacers, somewhat of a risky move given Miami’s must-win situation. But James became assertive, Wade had his knee drained and the two played perhaps their best collective basketball since becoming teammates. Over the next three games – all wins to close out the series – James averaged 32.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.0 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field and Wade averaged 33.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting nearly 62 percent. They accounted for 61 percent of the Heat’s points, 46 percent of their rebounds and 54 percent of their assists. That is some heavy lifting. “Chris Bosh is an awesome basketball player, but when he goes down, that just means more touches for LeBron and Wade,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s not exactly an advantage.” … Since the NBA expanded to a best-of-seven in the opening round in 2003, four teams have swept the first and second rounds – the Heat in 2005, the Cavaliers in 2009, the Magic in 2010 and the Spurs this year. Each of the previous three lost in the conference finals. … Shaquille O’Neal was smart to turn down the chance to possibly become GM of the Magic. TV is a much better place for O’Neal, who was a notorious offseason slouch as a player, often coming to training camp overweight and out of shape. (Who can ever forget Kobe Bryant calling him “fat” on the eve of one of their seasons together?) GMs never really stop working; they spend most of their days on the phones, scouring waiver wires, watching their teams - often traveling to do so – and looking for new talent in college and overseas. It is a job that requires energy and attention to detail, neither of which have been strong points for O’Neal. … After averaging 21.4 points on 41 percent shooting with 7.0 rebounds vs. Orlando, Indiana forward Danny Granger plummeted to 13.3 points on under 38 percent shooting with 4.5 rebounds vs. Miami. His incessant trash-talking throughout the conference semifinals seemed to fire up the Heat more than himself. He was the prime culprit as the Pacers appeared to get too caught up in maintaining their reputation of playing “smashmouth basketball,” which did produce their deepest playoff run in seven years but backfired against Miami. … Suns forward Josh Childress hasn’t exactly lived up to the five-year, $33 million deal he signed two years ago upon returning from Greece. After averaging double figures in his first four seasons in Atlanta, Childress has had trouble cracking the rotation in Phoenix, averaging 5.0 points in 54 games last season and just 2.9 points in 34 games this season. However, he did set an NBA record for most minutes without a made free throw. Childress played 491 minutes and was 0-of-2, missing both in a Feb. 1 win at New Orleans. He only has three years and $21 million left on his deal. Amnesty? … In this year’s playoffs, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant is 3-of-4 on potential tying or winning shots in the final three seconds. Orlando’s Glen Davis is 1-of-2. Everybody else is 0-of-24. … Here’s an obvious sign that Bryant imploring his teammates to step up during the postseason should not be ignored by Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak as he plots the team’s future course: The Lakers are 10-3 when Bryant scores 40 points in a playoff game but were 0-2 this postseason. Kupchak’s best bet may be to ignore conventional wisdom and move Pau Gasol – not for another high-priced star but for a package of solid younger players that will deepen the rotation and give him more flexibility against the salary cap and luxury tax going forward. The Lakers could plug in Jordan Hill at power forward if they fortify point guard, small forward and their frontcourt depth. … When Indiana’s David West opened the scoring with a jumper 22 seconds into Game 6, it marked the first lead for the Pacers in 65 minutes, 42 seconds. … The Sixers fell just shy of becoming the second eighth seed to reach the conference finals since the NBA went to a 16-team playoff format in 1984. Their seven wins tied last year’s Grizzlies for the second-most in one postseason by an eighth seed. In 1999 – another postseason following a lockout-shortened campaign – the Knicks won 12 games and remain the only eighth seed to reach the Finals.
Trivia Answer: Boston and the LA Lakers with five. … Happy 55th Birthday, David Greenwood. … How many bye weeks do the Spurs get?
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.