The Philadelphia 76ers had been winning ugly all season, which even got them to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on May 26 against the Boston Celtics. Sixers fans like myself were as ill-equipped to explain their success as anyone else, given their lack of a superstar and occasional lack of scoring in general. But the best way to explain it is that the Sixers had been disciplined and did not beat themselves, which is how they hung around to win so much.
Yet that winning formula eluded Philadelphia when it needed it the most in Boston. The Sixers and Celtics played one last typical game between them, in that defense ruled the night and kept Boston from pulling away. But because the Sixers coughed up chances to get even closer, they finally gave out in a final 85-75 defeat in Game 7.
For much of the first half, the Sixers shot under 30 percent, yet were still within range of the Celtics anyway. They started the first half in a quick eight point hole, then fell back behind by eight at halftime thanks to a late Celtics run. But in between, Philadelphia managed to hang around like always and keep Boston from pulling away.
When the Sixers then pulled to as close as one point down in the third, it looked like this could be one of those inexplicable nights where they barely shot the ball and won anyway. But the difference between those nights and this Game 7 was in turnovers, as the normally disciplined Sixers could not protect the ball. After averaging only 11 turnovers a game in the regular season, Philadelphia closed the postseason with 15 - a few too many.
Two ill-advised alley-oop passes led to turnovers and blown chances to get even closer in the middle of the second half. In addition, several missed free throws helped halt the Sixers' momentum, particularly when Andre Iguodala missed two late in the third that could have given them the lead. But despite all of that, Philadelphia was only down by three late in the fourth, and had the ball after Paul Pierce fouled out.
The floodgates really opened when the Sixers turned the ball over yet again in that possession, which led to Rajon Rondo getting a bucket. From then on in, Rondo took over and scored seven straight points to put the Celtics over the top. But if Philadelphia had played its usual disciplined game, it would never have gotten to that point.
The Sixers survived their lack of star power and explosive scoring because they did so well in many other avenues. Yet without keeping their lid on the ball and without making their free throws, they could not overcome their usual deficiencies when it really counted.
It took much longer than expected for these flaws to finally kill Philadelphia. But in the end, either the pressure of a Game 7 or the Sixers' own relative lack of ability - or both - finally caught up to them. The Sixers made a habit of winning ugly, yet it was losing ugly that ultimately did them in at long last.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan.
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