Sixers MIA for biggest game of season

Posted: May 01, 2009

Whatever their failings, and they have more than a few, the 76ers usually can be counted on to play hard, even on those occasions when they do not play particularly well.

Last night, in their biggest game of the season, in the setting of a home game that could force the seventh game of a playoff series, they picked a bad time to disappear.

"This game for us was a total collapse," coach Tony DiLeo said after the Orlando Magic closed out the Sixers with a 114-89 win that was accomplished despite two missing starters for the Magic.

If you choose to count the absence of Jameer Nelson, who was a big part of Orlando's 59-win season, the Magic were actually without 60 percent of their starting lineup.

It didn't matter, however, that Orlando started Marcin Gortat at center in place of Dwight Howard, or J.J. Redick in place of Courtney Lee, or the only occasionally reliable Rafer Alston in place of Nelson.

It didn't matter. The Magic, holding the security of a possible seventh game in Orlando with Howard back in the lineup, came out and played without a care in the world.

The Sixers came out and played without a clue in the world.

"After the season we've had, after the playoffs up to this point, to finish off the season with that game is extremely disappointing," DiLeo said. "It's difficult to swallow."

What was swallowed up by the game was more than just that. Any momentum the franchise had gained during this season, and you have to be a real optimist to take too much solace from a 41-41 record, disappeared.

The crowd, which booed the team lustily and deservedly all night, took to the exits early in the fourth quarter and didn't seem like a bunch eager to return. You have to wonder how many of those season-ticket renewal envelopes will be filled out and mailed in today.

Beyond that, there is the question of just which direction this team is headed. It will welcome back power forward Elton Brand next season, but whether that experiment is worthwhile is still open to conjecture.

Last night was not a good one for many of the players, but it was particularly disappointing for center Samuel Dalembert. Freed from the presence of Howard in this game, Dalembert was expected to play much better than he did. He scored eight points, did have 13 rebounds, but was also part of a lethargic half-court defense that let Orlando do essentially what it wanted.

In the first half, the Magic scored 62 points without having a single fastbreak basket. That's nearly impossible within the constraints of 24 NBA minutes, but Orlando made it look easy. The Magic got whatever shot they wanted and didn't have to worry about the consequences.

"Our character has always been to fight back and be resilient. For whatever reason, we never had that second punch. We never came back with anything. We never got anything going," DiLeo said.

Afterward, forward Andre Iguodala spoke cryptically of changes that need to be made in the off-season, indicating that some of his teammates make constant mental lapses that hold back the Sixers.

"We've got to make moves and have a busy summer," Iguodala said. "All the things that are holding us back we've got to try to get rid of."

Iguodala indicated his desire to sit down and share his thoughts with general manager Ed Stefanski, and the Sixers have plenty of time for all those conversations. Just as they did last season, the Sixers couldn't get past the first round of the postseason, but this was far worse because they weren't playing a team anywhere near as dominant as the Pistons of a year ago.

Orlando is an eminently beatable team, and last night should have been a layup, but that isn't the way the NBA works. The game goes to the team that plays better, whether it's supposed to or not.

"We saw where Thaddeus Young said having Howard out would be very big for them," Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. "Well, you've got to watch that stuff in this league. This league will bring you to your knees. Our guys are laughing in the locker room. They're saying, 'All we had to do was get rid of Dwight's 24 points and 24 rebounds and we're fine.' "

Yes, it's hard to figure, and last night it was awfully hard to watch, too. It isn't how the Sixers wanted to go into the off-season, with the other team joking in its locker room, but they had the option of preventing it and couldn't do so.

So, the total is still one playoff series win since the NBA Finals in 2001 for a franchise that continues to search for direction. Last night, the direction was nowhere.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://philly.com/postpatterns.

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