The Sixers will play hard, keep the games close by outhustling the Heat to loose balls, make a run or two by speeding up the tempo - and then lose by double digits. Without Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, they trailed the Magic by 21 points midway through the fourth quarter before closing the gap to 95-85 at the final buzzer. Even if Iguodala and Williams play against the Heat, the result could be the same.
The reason is simple. The beauty of the Sixers is that they are the sum of their parts. The downside is they lack a bona fide superstar to fall back on. This is not breaking news, but Howard really hammered the point home, especially when he took an alley-oop pass from Jameer Nelson and dunked on Holiday in one of the sickest plays of the season.
Imagine what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, or Chris Bosh will do.
Howard finished with 19 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 blocks. He was one of three Magic players to score at least 18 points, and one of two with a double-double (Ryan Anderson had 18 points and 14 rebounds off the bench).
Three Sixers starters combined for 18 points, while Elton Brand had 22, and Holiday had 15 points and 11 assists. And no one for the Sixers rebounded the basketball. At one point in the first half, they trailed Orlando by 25-2 on the boards, a fact Doug Collins said he thought was a "typographical error" when he saw the statistic.
Because of injuries, the Sixers really are limping into the playoffs. They have lost four of their last five games, a slide coinciding with Williams' hamstring injury on April 2 against Milwaukee. The problem is not so much the losses as it is the Sixers' lack of consistency with their rotations.
Collins would rather be tweaking his lineups right now than deciding whom to put in the starting lineup. He moved Evan Turner into Iguodala's starting spot to begin the game, then went with Andres Nocioni to start the second half. Turner was nonexistent for much of the game, and Nocioni had three three-pointers to help keep the Sixers in the game in the first half.
But since Williams has been hurt, the Sixers have been completely out of sync. Williams has said he thinks he will be back for the postseason, but will the Sixers fall back into the comfortable substitution patterns as soon as he returns? It is impossible to know.
Asked how concerned he is about the Sixers' recent slide, Brand said: "It's not on high alert, but I want to be prepared. We've got guys down, but I expect other guys to step up. . . . If you can do it now, there's a better chance of you doing it in the playoffs. If you can't do it now, it's going to be tougher to do it next week."
Meanwhile, Collins is trying to put a bright face on the situation. He is the eternal glass-is-half-full coach, but it is obvious that he is concerned with this little losing stretch. Success breeds confidence, and the Sixers are going to need it against the Heat. They don't need the memory of Howard dunking on their point guard.
The Sixers will have one more chance Wednesday against Detroit to finish the season with a winning record. It would be an important achievement, but with Iguodala and Williams likely to sit again, it is going to be hard to come by.
"To me, we're winners," Collins said before the game. "I mean, 41 [wins] to me is winning. We're winning. With this group of guys like it is, if someone would say 41-41 is not a winning year, I would disagree because I think we're winners.
"What we'd like to do is win the two games so we could have a winning month, which would make it five months in a row. . . . But again, I've got to keep my eye on the prize and the big picture."
The big picture is the second season, which is almost upon us. For the Sixers to have any chance of staying competitive in a seven-game series with the Heat, they will have to, in Collins' words, "have a full hand, a full deck of cards, and we have to be able to be playing well."
They have neither right now, which is a big problem with Miami on deck.
Contact columnist Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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