Sixers' modest talent not enough for postseason success

Zydrunas Ilgauskas, smothering the 76ers' Lou Williams, is one of the Heat's many weapons.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, smothering the 76ers' Lou Williams, is one of the Heat's many weapons.
Posted: April 24, 2011

Through three games of their first-round playoff series against the Miami Heat, the Sixers have neither won a game once nor lost the same way twice.

Each time, it has been someone or something different that eventually beat them, whether it was Chris Bosh going off in the opener to lift his scattershot teammates, or the Sixers' own abysmal shooting in the second game that doomed them, or, in the third game, a defensive collapse in the basket area.

If this were to continue indefinitely, the Sixers undoubtedly would collect the complete set and then we'd know exactly how many ways the Miami Heat could win a game. It isn't a short list, which tends to be the case with great basketball teams.

The series won't last long enough to complete that research, however, and could end Sunday in the Wells Fargo Center if the Heat don't suffer an attention lapse. Miami, trying to win 16 playoff games this season, might have lost interest in this appetizer, while the Sixers - just trying to win one - would like to avoid the ignominy of being swept out on a home court where they haven't dropped back-to-back games since mid-November.

"When the game gets tough, do you say, 'Oh, we're down 0-3, how bad do I want to go back to Miami? Do I want to see these guys again?' Or do you fight like they've done all year and find a way to get back to Miami?" coach Doug Collins mused after practice on Friday. "I told them let's give ourselves a chance to play them again. I expect our guys to respond."

It is a testament to Collins, and to the personality of the players, that the Sixers have been a tough out for the last five months. They have respected the value of working hard and not letting their shortcomings talk them into accepting the obvious. Considering this is the same core group that moped around half-heartedly for most of last season, it has been a refreshing ride.

Still, the reality of the NBA postseason is that modest talent and a great attitude usually will take you no further than modest talent alone. April, May, and June are always more about aptitude than attitude.

"The elite teams, come playoff time, have another gear they can go to," Collins said. "We play the same way every single night. That's how we play, and it's not to take anything away from our guys, but we just don't have that other gear."

The mathematics of the opening series against Miami were daunting from the start, and not just in the obvious advantages the Heat hold. The three leading scorers for Miami - guys you have probably heard of - averaged a combined 23 free-throw attempts per game this season, for instance. They are great players, and teams foul them just to try to keep up or to throw them off. The three leading scorers for the Sixers - Elton Brand, Andre Iguodala, and Jrue Holiday - averaged 10 combined free throws per game. Opponents are able to keep up and are not afraid to let them just play their games.

That may not sound like much, but it's a huge reason the Sixers go through scoring slumps so often in this series. Everything is hard. Through the first three games, the Sixers have outscored Miami from the field by five points (218-213), and the Heat have outscored the Sixers at the line by 40 (78-38).

Then, factor in the reality that great players get the benefit of the doubt on foul calls, on both offense and defense, and the uphill battle becomes a slog through a dense forest with branches that regularly bend back and whack you across the face.

Collins wondered out loud after Thursday's Game 3 how LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh could combine to play 120 minutes (actually 2 hours, 4 minutes, 21 seconds) of pretty physical playoff basketball and commit a total of only two fouls. It was a decent observation, although Collins knew the answer: "That's how the league works, and if you don't like it, get some players."

Unfortunately, ascending to that stage is still a couple of years away for the Sixers, if it happens at all. They are two scorers and a defensive presence from reaching the top half of the conference bracket. One of their incumbent dependables is the 32-year-old Brand, who might not still be around, and the other is Iguodala, whose play has been so horrific in this series he can't be counted as a building block for the future.

The Heat are barely bothering to guard Iguodala when they protect a lead in crunch time. Miami has been using James Jones on Iguodala, freeing up James and Wade to guard Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams, respectively. To say this presents a difficult equation for the Sixers offense is an understatement.

"I keep thinking. It's not like I'm not thinking," Collins said. "And it's not like I'm not seeing it."

Identifying the problem isn't the issue. Doing something about it is the issue. The Heat are a better team, and, at this time of year, no amount of emotional physics will change the most basic law of NBA motion - The Talented Advance.

It is just a matter of how quickly they advance, and, when the Heat win another game in this series, about taking note of which method they chose to wrap things up. It could be anything, but it definitely will be something.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/

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