The fairytale run finally came to an end last night for Doug Collins and his Philadelphia 76ers. In a game that seemed like a microcosm of their season—suffocating defense, stagnant offense, and plenty of grit and determination—the 76ers fell to the Celtics, 85-75.
When the dust settles, and the pain of a disappointing Game 7 defeat is eased by a few days of measured contemplation, 76ers fans will be quietly encouraged by a season in which their team defied expectations—and sometimes belief. Defeating the number-one seed Chicago Bulls in the first-round, albeit without Derrick Rose, and taking the 4th seed Celtics to seven games, was no mean feat.
When you consider the dismal way in which the team played during the last two months of the regular season, the 76ers run becomes all the more impressive.
Collins’ men began the year on fire. They raced out to a 20-9 record, comfortably led the Atlantic division, and were one of the best teams in the league before the all-star break. It was obvious that Collins had installed a discipline in his team, one that had been lacking in past incarnations of the 76ers.
They were playing fantastic defense, making good decisions with the ball (reflected in their lack of turnovers), and getting timely scoring from their bench.
And then things began to fall apart.
After such a confident start, Philadelphia’s weaknesses began to surface. Defensively they held steady for the most part, but their offensive cohesion completely dried up. It became painfully obvious that the 76ers lacked a go-to scorer in crunch time. Lou Williams played well during the first two months of the season, but his production dipped after the all-star break. In the 4th quarter it became a matter of mid-range jump shot or bust. A blowout loss to the lowly Wizards, and a 7-point 4th quarter against the Raptors, summed up Philly’s offensive ineptitude.
There were even rumors of discontent in the locker room, with Doug Collins alluding to the fact that some of his players weren’t receptive to his abrasive approach.
Stumbling to the finish line, the Sixers narrowly held on to the 8th seed and finished with a mediocre record of 35-31
It wasn’t boding well for a match-up with the Bulls—the best team during the regular season—despite the brash confidence of Evan Turner. And to be honest, until Rose’s uncooperative body decided to betray him, it didn’t look like things would get much better for the 76ers.
Rose’s injury turned the series around. Jrue Holiday was freed from the shackles of guarding last seasons’ MVP and excelled on the offensive end—playing excellently for the remainder of Philadelphia’s playoff run. Andre Iguodala recaptured his form of January and February that saw him selected for his first all-star appearance, while Turner emerged as a genuine threat from the 2-guard position.
After closing out the banged-up Bulls in 6, the 76ers gave the Celtics all they could handle. Brilliantly coach throughout the playoffs by Collins, Philadelphia made the absolute most of their defensive strengths and speedy transition game. They were ultimately undone by an inability to put together fluid offensive in the half-court game.
It will be an intriguing off-season for the 76ers. The team has some exciting young talent to build around. Holiday has emerged, during these playoffs, as an exciting young point guard—unafraid to take the big shot, while Evan Turner has shown promise at both ends of the floor.
How Turner’s development is viewed by the 76ers front office may determine what they decide to do regarding Iguodala’s future. Turner has been playing at the shooting guard spot, but he may ultimately end up at the 3. Iguodala, who has undeniably become an elite perimeter defender this year, may be expendable if Turner can excel at small forward.
Philly’s most pressing needs are in the frontcourt. Spencer Hawes is a free agent, and Lavoy Allen has shown enough upside to render Hawes’ services redundant. The real elephant in the room, however, is Elton Brand’s hideous contract. Brand is set to make $18 million next year, and should be a prime amnesty clause candidate. The 76ers, as evident throughout the season, desperately need a player who can take the pressure off their guards in crunch-time, and grab easy buckets in the post. Brand isn’t that guy.
Whatever happens in the off-season, Philadelphia has plenty of positives to build upon. It’s been a rough few years for the 76ers and their fans. Not since the heady days of Allen Iverson, back at the turn of the century, has there be much to get excited about in The City of Brotherly Love.
Despite some ugly moments this year, things are definitely looking up.