With Dwight Howard and Courtney Lee sidelined for game six tomorrow night, the gut reaction of everyone is going to be to punch the Sixers' ticket to game seven back in Orlando on Saturday. That would be a very, very big mistake.
Obviously, I'm thrilled the Sixers won't have to face Dwight Howard, and Courtney Lee as well, but this turn of events also has me feeling uneasy. You see, this Sixers team has a long history of losing games they should win and vice versa. Don't believe me? Check out the last two weeks of the season. Heck, you don't really need to look any further than the final two games to catch my drift. Boston without Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Loss. Cleveland without basically their entire starting lineup. Need overtime for a win.
I love this Sixers team. I've enjoyed this season immensely, but they have this nasty habit of believing the hype, whenever it's actually there. When they come into games as clear favorites they lose their edge. I spent the entire regular season trying to figure out why, and I'm still drawing a blank. I do have some anecdotal evidence to illustrate what I'm talking about, though.
I attended both game three and game four of this series at the Wach. For both games, the Sixers opened the gates an hour and a half before the tip. I went right to my seat and watched the teams warm up. Now remember, in game three, the Sixers were coming off a tough loss and absolutely needed a win to retain home court advantage. It was a crucial game. That night, when I got into the stadium I saw Andre Iguodala on the floor, working with Aaron McKie on his outside game, catch-and-shoot drills, pick and roll drills, free throws. I saw Thad working on foul shots, Lou working on his mid-range game. Speights was working on post moves and jumpers from the elbow. The team had a purpose.
Prior to game four, no Sixers were on the court. A few were seated in the front row, talking with friends, maybe putting up shots from a seated position once in a while. Iguodala came out a little later and ran through an abbreviated version of his ritual. Other players meandered on the court from time to time, mostly just to put up a couple of threes. The difference in intensity was palpable.
The Sixers absolutely cannot take this game lightly. I don't care who they're playing, this is it. This game is their season. Come out flat and we have nothing to look forward to but the draft. Underestimate a depleted Magic team and it's over. Done.
My hope is that this team will realize the stakes and concentrate more on what they have to do to win than who will be wearing blue jerseys. My hope is that the importance of an elimination game will override whatever immaturity remains after 87 games. Make no mistake, the Sixers do not have a cakewalk to game seven. No playoff game should ever be a cakewalk. This game will be a battle, a battle the Sixers should win, but a battle they could easily lose if the gravity of the situation is somehow lost on them.