PHILADELPHIA—When they wake up and pinch themselves this morning – to the surprise of everyone but themselves – Brett Brown, Michael Carter-Williams and the rest of the Philadelphia 76ers will discover no, this was not a dream.
They really did just beat LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, 114-110, at a raucous Wells Fargo Center where many had come to celebrate this franchise’s past but instead wound up cheering on one of the most improbable victories we may see all season.
Rookie point guard Carter-Williams really did have an NBA debut that won’t soon be topped, coming within a steal and three rebounds of a quadruple-double.
They really did make their first 11 shots while surging to 19-0 and 26-4 leads in the first six minutes, only to watch in awe while the Heat erased it by erupting for 80 points in the second and third periods, knocking down a franchise-record 10 3-pointers during a 45-point third quarter.
And finally, just when defeat seemed inevitable, down 104-95 with 4 ½ minutes left, they really did proceed to go on a 13-1 run while the champs missed 10 straight shots down the stretch to make this a night to remember.
So for all you cynics and prophets of doom proclaiming them the worst team in the league and saying this season will be an exercise in futility, for at least one night.
That put the cap on a memorable day in town, where one former icon, Allen Iverson, officially announced his retirement during an hour-long confessional press conference, followed by a number of others being on hand during the game to commemorate the career of a 50-year team employee. That honor roll included “The Doctor,’’ Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Bobby Jones and the last coach to take them to a championship in 1983, Billy Cunningham.
Meanwhile, last year’s coach, Doug Collins, sat in the stands with his grandchildren, while celebrities ranging from current Eagles DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy to pop superstar Patti LaBelle were scattered throughout the arena.
They were mainly there for the occasion, probably never expecting a competitive game to actually break out. One more reminder why no matter how great a mismatch it seems, you always still play the games.
“It helps when you put in the work– and every team will say the same thing,’’ said Brown, who never could have imagined his long-awaited NBA coaching debut would go like this. “To get a win like this it justifies the effort.
“It feels like they enjoy playing with each other. If feels like they’ll take a hit and get back up. It’s early days and we have this in perspective, but it’s obviously exciting. To go down against a team like Miami and find some chemistry, camaraderie and toughness and get back in it is a fantastic sign.’’
The cynics are bound to wonder if this was simply an aberration (which of course it was). They will point to the fact the Heat was coming off an emotional night where they received their rings, then toyed with the Bulls, 107-96, and didn’t arrive in town until 3:45 Wednesday morning. Plus the braintrust decided to sit Dwyane Wade on this second night of a back-to-back, even though Wade said he could have played if they really needed him.
The inference was clear. And if it wasn’t, somebody asked James before the game his thoughts about Friday night’s game in Brooklyn vs. the revamped Nets. “I’m not worried about that right now,’’ James said, moments before the Heat went out and missed their first seven shots while Philly couldn’t miss. “I’m worried about tonight’s game.
“We’ve just got to be focused.’’
Clearly, they weren’t, from the time Carter-Williams (22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists, nine steals and just one turnover in 36 minutes) swiped Roger Mason’s pass and went in for a dunk on the first possession, through Tony Wroten’s 3-pointer just over six minutes in, making it 26-4. But that still left Miami nearly 42 minutes to play, plenty of time to get it together and show why they’re the NBA’s best.
When Ray Allen gave longtime Spurs assistant Brown a cruel reminder how devastating he can be by sinking four treys – the last from beyond midcourt at the buzzer – in a two-minute span, to put the Heat up 94-85 after three, it looked like Miami was home free.
And there seemed no reason to suspect otherwise when LeBron threw down a hellacious dunk, making it 107-99 with 4:55 left.
For Sixers fans, who had come to see LeBron and show their love to A.I,. a loss here would have been acceptable, the first step on their path to the lottery and a shot at Kansas wunderkind Andrew Wiggins.
Even one veteran team employee conceded the best thing for them would be flipping a switch so the calendar would jump from October to May.
Speaking of Wiggins, LeBron has some advice for the kid. “All he should worry about is being a great teammate and the best basketball player and student he can be while he’s at Kansas,’’ said a man who knows the pressure of being labeled the game’s next great one. “It’s up to his supporting cast to keep out all the negative things around him away from him. Just let him concentrate on the other things.’’
But on this one night when veterans like Spencer Hawes (24 points, nine rebounds), Evan Turner (26 points) and the rookie sensation Carter-Williams had other ideas, Riggin’ for Wiggins was the last thing on their minds
“At the end of the day, it’s still a basketball game and we have a lot of confidence,’’ said Carter-Williams, who calmly swished two free throws with 8.5 seconds remaining to ice it. “Miami’s a great team, but we were able to stay close and pull it out at the end.’’
It was the Sixers’ first regular season win over Heat in 16 games, stretching back before LeBron’s arrival in Miami.
And sticking it to all those folks telling them how terrible they’re going to be.
“We got a lot of pride among the guys who’ve been here,’’ said Hawes, one of only four players suiting up who played for Philly last season. “And the guys coming in want to prove themselves as players in this league. These are all NBA players around here.’’
That was the lesson they taught the Heat. Any NBA dog can have its day. Wade knows the feeling, having once played for a 15-67 Heat squad.
“It gets no worse than that in professional sports,’’ he said, recalling the pain of those memories. “Our coaches had us always believing it could be our moment. It never came, but they kept us believing it could. That season felt like three years in one.’’
Perhaps this season will be the same for the Sixers, though anyone witnessing last night’s shocker would have a hard time buying that.
“Together We Build’’ is the team slogan this season, as definitive as you can get to calling yourself a loser for now. Maybe Wedmesday night was indeed a fluke. Maybe the rest of the season will be the nightmare everyone expects it to be.
Or just maybe the Philadelphia 76ers will have the last laugh – the best one – on all of us. They certainly did Wednesday on Mischief Night.
Jon Marks has covered the Philadelphia 76ers from the days of Dr. J and his teammate, Joe Bryant (best known 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.