John Smallwood: Knicks, Sixers on different paths

Knicks fans make their presence felt in win over Sixers at Wells Fargo Center.
Knicks fans make their presence felt in win over Sixers at Wells Fargo Center. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: March 22, 2012

YOU HAVE to give credit to New York Knicks fans.

Rarely is mediocrity celebrated with such gusto.

With gas in the Big Apple running around $4 a gallon, it's probably a $40 to $50 car ride down the Jersey Turnpike to Philadelphia and back.

You're looking at up to $20 in tolls and parking at the Wells Fargo Center runs at least $15.

Then you still actually had to purchase tickets for Wednesday night's Sixers-Knicks game, and I doubt a lot of the $12 seats in the upper level were available.

Add in concessions, and it was easily a $150 to $200 night for each Knicks fan.

Funny thing is, that was still probably cheaper than taking the subway to Madison Square Garden for a real Knicks home game, assuming you could actually get access to a ticket.

Average New Yorkers can't afford to go to a Knicks game, but they love their basketball team.

That's why they think little of traveling the I-95 corridor to New Jersey, Washington and, yes, Philadelphia, where tickets are always available.

That was not really a home game for the Sixers.

At least half of the sellout crowd of 20,470 was cheering for New York, and at times it seemed like the entire building was.

This was a hostile takeover of South Philadelphia - the type of invasion of somebody else's house that Eagles, Phillies and Flyers fans proudly brag about doing.

The Knicks rode the love they got to an 82-79 home, um, road win.

This was clearly a New York kind of thing from the introductions.

Whatever chance the Sixers had of quieting or arousing the home crowd, depending on your perspective, ended when they opened the game by missing their first 14 shots.

The Sixers didn't get their first points until Thad Young made two free throws with 6 minutes, 19 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

They didn't have a field goal until Elton Brand made a 17-footer at the 4:12 mark.

"Wow," said Sixers coach Doug Collins. "Start out 0-for-14, that's tough to fight out of.

"I told our guys the scouting report on us now is, 'Get into them physically and it's going to be tough for them to play.' We're going to have to be ready to learn to play when people get into us."

The Sixers made a game of things, which if nothing else confirmed that someone who bought a ticket was actually cheering for them.

In the big picture, the Knicks are much like the Sixers - a contender by default in the Eastern Conference.

Whoever wins the Atlantic, no matter how much quality the division lacks, can be no worse than the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

That means avoiding the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Orlando Magic in the first round. That means having a decent chance of making more than just a cameo appearance.

For much of the season, it seemed that team was going to be the Sixers.

Less than 2 weeks ago, the Sixers went up to MSG and humiliated the Knicks, 106-94.

The Sixers didn't have a solid grip on the Atlantic, but they were much better off than the Knicks, who had lost five straight and completely tuned out coach Mike D'Antoni.

One more loss later, D'Antoni resigned.

Mike Woodson took over and the corpse that had been the Knicks miraculously began breathing again.

Now the Knicks have won five straight. And despite being just 23-24 and still three games behind the Sixers, New York seems like a much stronger bet to win the division.

The Sixers' free fall continues.

After being 20-9 on Feb. 13, the Sixers have now lost 12 of their last 18.

A year ago, when the Sixers got off to a miserable 3-13 start, they were lauded for the 38-28 finish that earned them a .500 record and the seventh seed in the playoffs.

So what do we make of this current version?

Losing 12 out of 18 is almost as bad as losing 13 of 16. It just didn't happen at the beginning of the season.

The good vibes gained from the first half of the season are just about used up.

The Knicks are closing and the Boston Celtics, who come into the Wells Fargo Center Friday night just one game behind the Sixers, are already there.

There is a lot to be gained or lost over the final 19 games.

If the Sixers can somehow get it back together and win the Atlantic, they can be no worse than the fourth seed - even though that would currently mean opening the first round against the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers.

But if the Sixers don't win the division, they are probably looking at the sixth seed at best and more likely the seventh or eighth.

If that happens, then a season that started with so much promise for growth and development will have the same mediocre outcome the Sixers have delivered for the last decade.

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