John Smallwood: Time to believe in the 76ers

Sixers’ Evan Turner makes move against Celtics . Ron Cortes / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Sixers’ Evan Turner makes move against Celtics . Ron Cortes / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: May 17, 2012

OK, I’M TIRED of all this talk and focus on the growth and development the Sixers have shown during these NBA playoffs.

Blah, blah, blah. Yada, yada, yada. Booooooring.

Enough, we’re harping on something that was a given.

They were things that were going to happen by osmosis they moment Andre Iguodala sank those two free throws in Game 6 against the Chicago Bulls to send the Sixers to the second round of the playoffs.

The first two games against the Boston Celtics were automatically learning experiences because, except for veteran Elton Brand, no key member of the rotation had ever been out of the first round.

Tonight, when the Sixers resume their series with the Celtics in Game 3 at the Wells Fargo Center, it will be another new adventure for this youthful squad.

But assessing that growth is something for later.

Right now, the Sixers have a unique opportunity to do something special.

The Sixers can advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001.

The circumstances of how they arrived here don’t matter. The only thing that counts is that it’s right there for them.

By beating the Celtics 82-81 on Monday in Boston, the Sixers have turned an already favorable match up into an infinitely winnable one.

It is now a best-of-five series with the Sixers holding the home-court advantage.

They beat the Bulls three times in South Philadelphia during the first round. It’s not inconceivable they can do the same to the Celtics.

That’s a 4-2 series when you simply handle your business at home. The impression might be that because the Sixers are an eighth-seed, they are playing with house money, but it still stinks to lose house money when you could have brought it home instead.

Beat the Celtics.

Go to the Eastern Conference finals.

Before the season, reasonable expectations were to get the franchise’s first winning season since 2004-05 and win its first playoff series since 2002-03.

They’ve accomplished that. Yet there remain things in front of them that can still be won.

Seize the moment.

Beat the Celtics.

Go to the Eastern Conference finals.

“We’ve got to continue to prove ourselves and do it consistently; not just be a one-time thing,” said Iguodala. “We have to play better basketball and keep playing with confidence to win more games.”

Exactly, the Sixers have to keep playing with confidence.

Despite the star-power advantage the Celtics have on paper, this is an even matchup.

Boston’s “Big Three” of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are future Hall of Famers, but all are closer to punching their tickets to Springfield, Mass. than being able to display the talents that paved their way.

The Sixers’ youth and athleticism is an equalizer to the Celtics’ experience.

The first two games of this series, both one-point decisions, reinforced what three games the Sixers and Celtics played during the regular season had already showed — these teams are evenly matched.

The Sixers have won three of five games this season with Boston. It easily could have been four.

This is no longer an issue of the Sixers overcoming a deficiency in experience. That went out the window on Monday when the Sixers executed well enough down the stretch to win a tightfisted affair.

This is hard for people in Boston to concede, but the abilities of the teams are equal. These are no longer the Celtics players who won a title in 2008 and went to another NBA Final 2 years later.

There’s no reason for the Sixers to blink when staring at these Celtics.

What will decide the rest of this series is determination, heart and will. The Sixers simply have to want this more than the Celtics.

Fortunately for the Sixers, possessing those traits is not contingent on spending an extensive amount of time paying dues in the Association.

Those are innate characteristics. Every player on the Sixers roster already has them. None of them could have made it to the highest level of basketball without having them.

The deal maker will be the Sixers having enough confidence to believe they can beat Boston. And honestly, a lack of confidence should not be an issue with this team.

The Sixers lack a lot of things, but confidence is not missing.

“We like playing against Boston,” Sixers third-year guard Jrue Holiday said. “We think we match up well with them.

“It’s like [the Chicago] series. Now it’s our time to come home. We have home-court advantage. We have to keep it here. We have our fans backing us, family and friends. A lot of confidence.”

Except for the Miami Heat, who have beaten them soundly over the past two seasons; these Sixers would likely echo Holiday’s confidence no matter who they were playing.

You can debate the merits of their beliefs, but Iguodala believes he’s a legitimate NBA star; Holiday believes he has the potential to be a elite-level combo guard; Evan Turner believes he will be on par with Kevin Durant not Shawn Bradley as a No. 2 overall pick; Lou Williams believes he’s like Allen Iverson and can make any shot he takes.

This series is no longer about what the Sixers could get out of it in the long term.

Sometimes teams have unexpected opportunities. The Phillies had one in 2008. They rode it to the World Series title that broke the city’s championship drought.

This is one of those moments for the Sixers.

They have enough right now to earn, not steal, a spot into the Eastern Conference finals.

Do that. Beat the Celtics.

The conversations about development, growth, and maturity can wait until later. And they’ll be infinitely more positive if we have to wait until June to start them. n

Send email to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/Smallwood.

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