No matter how far these 76ers roam from .500 -- this latest time was four games away -- they always seem to return.
That's what happened tonight at The Palace of Auburn Hills: The Sixers were ahead 89-83 with 9:57 left in the fourth quarter, gave up an 18-8 run, and lost 101-97.
The Sixers are now 37-35 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Two games ago, before this loss to the Pistons and Friday night's to the Charlotte Bobcats, the Sixers were in fifth place, ahead of the Miami Heat. The Pistons, who used guard Allen Iverson tonight for the first time in 16 games, are now 36-37 and pulled out of the eighth spot into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference.
(After the game, Iverson said: "I'm just as happy as I can be to come back and be around the guys and get in front of the fans and contribute and get a win. And now my whole thing is trying to be the best 6th man I can be, the best 6th man in the league.")
It's tough to decide exactly how tonight's game was lost. Afterward, the Sixers were saying it was the lack of fourth-quarter free throws that cost them the game. Through three, they had shot 20-23 from the line. In the fourth, the Pistons were called for only one personal foul, which was non-shooting.
Sixers coach Tony DiLeo and Andre Iguodala, both alluded to the non-calls: (DiLeo: "We tried to be aggressive in the fourth quarter, take it to the basket, but for whatever reasons, we didn't get the free throws." Iguodala: "They didn't have any fouls in the fourth, so that means they were playing great 'D', I guess.")
Perhaps someone who watched this game on TV will have a different view point, but I don't remember thinking the Sixers had many blatant, aggressive drives thwarted by no-calls from the referees. In the fourth quarter, the Pistons were 4 for 5 from the line, the Sixers 0 for 0. It seemed the big problem was not stopping backup guard Will Bynum, who had nine of his 12 in the fourth quarter, including a handful of killer pull-up jumpers.
DiLeo also said his team needs to rebound better: The Pistons had five offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. Missing, of course, was Sixers center Samuel Dalembert, who played seven minutes in the first quarter and appeared to leave the game because of foul trouble, checking out immediately after picking up his second foul. After halftime, the Sixers announced that Dalembert had strained his right calf and would not return. In the second quarter, he was icing his right calf, but no one was sure whether he was injured, or just precautionary.
After the game, the Sixers said Dalembert was day-to-day. Although Theo Ratliff, who started the second half in place of Dalembert, played well, it seemed obvious the Sixers were missing Dalembert's inside presence.
What's this loss mean? It's tough to say. The Sixers have had such an up-and-down season: They'll go stretches playing so well, then stretches playing poorly. They just finished a 7-2 stretch, and you gotta hope that doesn't mean they'll fall into a bad stretch (although they have lost the last two games). With so few games remaining, and so much for which to play, it seems impossible they'd let themselves lose focus. And that's not what appeared to happen tonight. Except for those three technicals -- which seem so pointless, and yet it's NBA culture to be frustrated with the referees and display that frustration -- the Sixers played hard and appeared to be in a position to win this game.
On Tuesday, they have the Atlanta Hawks at the Wachovia Center. That, to me, will be the swing game. Will the Sixers start down another slide toward mediocrity, or plant their feet and battle for the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference?