The Sixers have lost consecutive games to teams they should have beaten for the first time since early January when Andre Iguodala was hurt. Just when the playoff race began to heat up, they've apparently wilted. You can pretty much forget about the fifth seed in the East. Luckily, though, the Knicks picked a fine time to show their true colors.
After the disastrous beginning to their 5-game road swing, the Sixers still sit only a half game out of the #6 seed thanks to New York dropping both ends of a home-and-home with the Pacers. The opportunity is still right there to move up in the standings. Of course, the difference between the sixth and seventh seed may not even be an advantage at this point. It all depends on how the top three shake out (right now, the #6 seed would face Miami while #7 gets the honor of facing the Bulls).
In terms of first-round matchups, moving up probably doesn't mean anything at all. A case can be made for why any of the top three teams would be a preferable matchup over the other two, but against any of the three, you'd have to put the Sixers odds of winning the series at somewhere below 5%.
Of course, there is a big but. I think it's vitally important that the Sixers find a way to move up, simply because they stated it as a goal. This season began much as the last one ended: a failure. The team spent the first 16 games as a laughingstock. Their confidence still crushed, their play pitiful some nights, just good enough to lose in heartbreaking fashion on others. They were a rudderless franchise headed straight to the lottery again. Then something happened. I have no idea what it was, but somehow they elevated their play. They built some momentum and they carried it through over three months. They destroyed bad teams, beat some really good teams, and hung with the teams in between, winning their fair share. It made absolutely no logical sense. On paper, they sure seemed much closer to the 3-13 team than the 31-18 team that took down the Celtics last week. They pulled for each other, they had an "us against the world" chip on their shoulder and every time you thought they might take a night off, they didn't.
Whatever united this team and allowed them to play over their heads has been missing for all but about 4 minutes over the past two games. What they do from this point on in 2011 could have repercussions that reach far beyond this season. They've secured a playoff spot, I don't think there's any doubt about that, but they've lost the very thing that got them there. If they've lost it permanently, and they limp through the final 15 games, it's going to be a quick, painful exit from the playoffs and a summer spent rightfully doubting that 49-game stretch of excellent basketball.
If they're satisfied with what they've accomplished to this point, they should be ashamed of themselves, because they haven't accomplished anything, yet.
This season is at a precipice. The Sixers can go out there tonight and prove all the doubters right. They can lay an egg against the Clippers. They can lick their wounds, start making excuses about how long the season is, and how many nagging injuries they have. They can continue their coast to the seventh or eighth seed, secure in the knowledge they beat most preseason expectations. They can do exactly what they did the two seasons prior to the last and nothing much will change about this franchise. More of the same.
The other option is to nut up. I don't know what Doug Collins did to get this team to bounce back every time they got knocked down over the past three months, but it worked. I'm assuming he cast some kind of svengali spell over them to get them to believe they were better than they actually were, and then it manifested itself as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They became better on the floor than they were on paper, mostly through nothing but pure effort and execution (mainly on the defensive end). If the Sixers want to accomplish something this season, they can stop reading their recent press clippings. They can stop watching tape of their wins over the Spurs and Celtics. They can start watching tapes of their losses to the Bucks and the Bulls and maybe they can start realizing exactly what Collins has been saying over and over again. They can be beat anyone on any given night, but only if they give 48 minutes of intense effort, and follow the game plan without fail.
The Sixers took their eye off the prize for a couple of nights, for whatever reason. It's not that they were outclassed by lesser teams, that's going to happen, it's that they were outworked. If that becomes a trend, well, then all is lost and I'm not sure why we should even bother watching the rest of the games. Unfortunately, there's no magic pill that's going to motivate these guys. The rest of this season is going to come down to how much they want it. And right now it has to be the #6 seed. They've already blown #5.