So the Sixers lost, and although they have made something of a season that started 3-13, although they will be in the playoffs next weekend, although they have performed better than most people outside of the organization probably expected, a loss at this time of year is still a big one. This 97-92 loss to the Knicks bumped the Sixers from the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference to the seventh with three games to play.
Combined with losses to Milwaukee on Saturday and Boston on Tuesday, the Sixers have lost three straight for the first time since late November, when losses to Washington, Toronto, and Miami capped that 3-13 start. The Sixers have three games left to gain some momentum for the playoffs. It starts Friday against Toronto.
What do the Sixers need more than anything?
"Win these last few games, that's the biggest thing," Thaddeus Young said. "Win these last few games."
No one expects the Sixers to beat Boston or Miami in the playoffs, but they would like to have a fighting chance. If they limp into the playoffs unsure of their shots or their rotation off the bench, this surprisingly fun and successful season would have been for naught. They really will be no better off than they were the last few years, and given how this team has come together under Doug Collins and played as a team that really seems to like each other as well as their coach, that would be a shame.
The ever-optimistic Collins will look at the glass as half full. He will leaf through the volume of statistics that seem to be photographed into his memory to give his players proof that they are doing good things. He will point to the positive, such as the Sixers' effective perimeter defense and their low turnover margin.
But the Sixers need to win games like the one Wednesday night. They need momentum and confidence and trust, not doubt and uncertainty.
Before the game, Collins said that in the grand scheme of things, it really does not matter whether the Sixers are the No. 6 seed or the No. 7, because whoever their opponent in the playoffs is, it will be a brutal matchup for a team that does not have a 20-points-a-night superstar.
"I mean, it's pick your poison," he said. "You want Boston, or you want Miami? For us, it's going to be a handful either way."
So Collins said he was less concerned about the outcome of these last few games and more concerned with how the team plays.
"For me, it's play well," he said. "Let's play well, and if we can finish sixth, that would be great because six is better than seven. But it's not because you get an easier opponent."
Collins is right. Six is better than seven. And winning is better than simply playing well. Playing well to win is even better.
The Sixers certainly showed flashes against the Knicks. They got down by 19 points in the third quarter because they could not contain Carmelo Anthony, who was bombing threes and getting to the rim. They started scratching back by forcing turnovers and pushing the tempo, scoring in transition and getting easy baskets on the break.
In a dizzying seven minutes in the fourth quarter, the Sixers went from 12 down to one up after Jodie Meeks stole the ball and drove in for a layup. But a series of misses, coupled with a couple of dagger threes by Toney Douglas and Anthony, and the game was over.
"I think we're going in the right way," Collins said. "If you're gauging it on whether or not we won or lost the game, I think from our standpoint we're playing good, hard, competitive basketball. . . . Other than maybe see the ball go in the basket a little bit, that'd be nice."
A win would be nice, too. Or two. The Sixers can't limp into the playoffs and then get swept out of it by one of the big boys. That would not do justice to what has happened with this team this season.
Collins probably knows that, too. But he is not panicking, and neither is his team. At least not yet.
Contact columnist Ashley Fox
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