Turns out the “Boston Strangler”’ did show up Saturday night on the Garden’s parquet floor, where the Sixers valiantly made their last stand, yet still came up short, 85-75, to Rajon Rondo and the Celtics.
Rather than Andrew Toney squeezing the life out of the opposition, this time the Sixers collectively did it to themselves.
The Celtics were there to be taken.
Through the bulk of three periods, they struggled with their shots and had a hard time keeping up with the younger, deeper and more athletic Sixers. Unfortunately for those in Philadelphia, Doug Collins’ team simply refused to accept their offer.
As poorly as the Celts shot with everything on the line, the Sixers shot worse.
As solid as Philadelphia’s defense was for the first three periods when Boston scored just 55 points, it cracked wide open in the fourth, surrendering 30 points–especially after go-to guy Paul Pierce fouled out with 4:16 left — the moment when folks inside the Garden had to be wondering if it was all going to come apart for the home team.
Instead, Rondo came to their rescue, scoring nine straight points. The Sixers continued to misfire and turn the ball over in critical situations. And when Rondo buried a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock with 2:10 remaining to push it to 78-68, Philadelphia’s fate was sealed once and for all.
Yes, it had been a marvelous run which captivated Philadelphians, even though no one for a moment had any illusions it could lead to the ultimate prize; an NBA championship. And as proud as Collins and the Sixers’ new ownership are feeling right now, the reality is they’re nowhere closer to a ring and we’re nowhere closer to a parade than before.
Unless GM Rod Thorn can work miracles in the trade and free agent market to unearth a legit big man who can rebound and defend the paint, a small forward who can knock down the 15-18 footer with regularity yet also go to the hole, and a couple of pure shooters who can shred a zone, the Sixers figure to be in for a struggle. Not only will it be tough for them to climb the conference ladder, but many of the teams surrounding them—namely the Knicks and Brooklyn-bound Nets—figure to get better.
So how should long-suffering Sixers fans—myself among them when I’m not on the job—react to this?
Before we start going giving our hearts back to the Phillies, what should we take of it all? Was this postseason just a freak of nature, brought about by the injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in the Bulls’ series, followed by exploiting an aging Celtics team operating with future Hall of Famers Pierce and Ray Allen clearly hampered by injuries?
Or is it a hint of the promise guards Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner can deliver once they expand their repertoires? Was the solid performance rookie 2nd round pick Lavoy Allen showed in containing Kevin Garnett–vaulting him above first round pick Nicola Vucevic in the rotation– an indicator he can be a contributing factor going forward? And what about the way soon-to-be free agents Lou Williams—who’s expected to out opt of his current deal—and Spencer Hawes came up small, for the most part, in the series?
Will they be back? Do folks in Philly want them back?
Those crucial decisions—along with what do with Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand –will be made in due time, then thoroughly debated. It figures to be an intriguing offseason for the Sixers, who own the No. 15 pick in the draft—barring any trades—along with two second-round picks.
Thorn and the brain trust must weigh their postseason accomplishments, and the way the Wells Fargo Center came alive in the process, against the reality of the situation. Can the current crop take this team further? Or are they doomed to be just one of many teams that can put on a good show, but aren’t really close to being best in show?
After all, LeBron James can brag about the trips he makes to the conference and NBA Finals all he wants. But unless he can finally capture the ring, they’ll be empty boasts. The Sixers, ring-less since 1983—the year after that momentous Game 7 win in Boston which remains the only time they captured a Game 7 on the road—still seem miles away from ending that drought.
Of course, they’ve got plenty of company locally. The litany is all too familiar to Philadelphia fans. No Super Bowls—and only two appearances in the big game—for the Eagles. The Flyers are now going on 37 years since their last drink from the Stanley Cup.
They appear to have a bright future, with a myriad of young players who only figure to get better as they mature—much like Holiday, Turner, Thaddeus Young and other Sixers. But who can predict what that will mean in the NHL, where the Cup this year will be decided between the No. 6 seed in the East, the Devils, and No. 8 in the West, the Kings.
As for the Phillies, maybe it will be a different story with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley due back someday—though nobody will say quite when—and a starting rotation than can shut anyone down, especially in a short postseason series. Then again, maybe not.
On this Memorial Day weekend, Philadelphia fans will wake up today thinking what might’ve been had a few shots fallen for a team that frankly, surpassed all expectations. But if they’re honest with themselves they’ll concede that even beating the hated Celtics—a tradition born when those great Boston teams of the ’60’s would not only beat them, but proceed to rub their noses in it, Red Auerbach lighting up his victory cigar on the bench as soon as he felt the game was in the bag—would only cover up their blemishes.
The Sixers are still a long ways from being a legit contender. And unless Dwight Howard suddenly decides he wants to play here and forces a deal, or Anthony Davis slips to No. 15 in the draft, the transformation won’t be happening any time soon. They should be lauded for all they did this year.
But by no means should you assume they’ll be able to use that as a stepping stone to loftier heights next year.
Now the networks can breathe a sigh of relief, with four of the NBA’s heavyweights—the Heat, Celtics, Spurs and Thunder—fighting it out for the crown. The Sixers, yes, they were a nice story; a little team that almost could. But fortunately, for the rest of the hoops world, couldn’t.
In Philadelphia, we’re used to that. One professional sports championship in 28-years-and counting. Sadly, it’s become our mantra.
Even sadder, it’s anyone’s guess how much longer the count will go on.
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.