The Philadelphia 76ers were held back by more than a few things in the regular season. Sixers fans like myself particularly lamented how the team couldn't beat the NBA's elite - especially in the final minutes. Whenever the Sixers couldn't blow any opponent out with a dominant third quarter, they usually fell apart in the last minutes of a tight game and proved they weren't ready to be a prime time team.
But all of a sudden, that hasn't been a problem against the Chicago Bulls in the NBA playoffs. As such, the Sixers' 3-1 series lead can't be laid entirely on the Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah injuries, but rather on how Philadelphia has found a clutch gene it never had before.
The latest example came in Game 4 on May 6, as the Sixers and Bulls battled through an ugly, tight contest just like in Game 3 on May 4. Back in Game 3, Philadelphia needed to make a big fourth-quarter comeback - the likes of which it rarely, if ever, did in the regular season - to take the series lead. To extend it, the Sixers didn't need a fourth quarter comeback, but it needed big shots and big stops anyway.
The big shots came when the struggling Jrue Holiday hit two straight three-pointers to stretch a one-point lead into seven. The big stops came when the Bulls nearly rallied back anyway, yet couldn't make up the rest of the gap. Then like in Game 3, free throw shooting made the rest of the difference, as the Sixers were nearly perfect from the line in the fourth quarter again.
If this sort of performance was on display in the regular season, maybe the Sixers wouldn't have fallen to a No. 8 seed. Maybe they would have won the Atlantic Division and suddenly have the inside track to the Eastern Conference finals themselves, instead of the Boston Celtics. But that doesn't eliminate how Philadelphia chose the right time to finally get these things right.
The late regular season Sixers would have been lacking in these late stretches, even with Rose and Noah gone. Somehow, Philadelphia has found a new gear in the postseason and taken advantage of how Chicago lost a few of its gears. If the Sixers can do this on the road as well - particularly in Game 5 at Chicago on May 8 with a chance to end the series - then maybe they will be on to something bigger.
Philadelphia has rarely seen the Sixers come through late like this at all, let alone twice in a row in the postseason. But if this is a new and improved team, the fourth quarters of Games 3 and 4 showed just how new and improved it really has become.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan.
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