The Issue Isn't the Playoffs

Sorry for the absence. I was gone the last week for a sports conference in Boston: didn't make the trip to Memphis and then Oklahoma City. So last night's game -- a win over the Toronto Raptors -- was the first in about a week.

No question, the Sixers played well. But the Raptors are bad. It's tough after the 15-point loss in Oklahoma City to take much from last night's win. If they can beat Chicago tomorrow night (some tickets are still available for this Spectrum game) and win Sunday afternoon against the Miami Heat, then I'll start thinking about the possibility of a strong finish to this season.

Okay, so after last night's win, we were crunching some numbers for these last 20 games (76ers are currently 31-31). The Sixers have more games left than the rest of the contingent in the vicinity of the lower end of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. If the Sixers can go .500 -- 10-10 -- the rest of the way, which is not a stretch considering they have a slew of games against some of the NBA's worst teams, Minnesota, Golden State, Sacramento, etc., it would be virtually impossible for them to miss the playoffs. The teams surrounding them, Milwaukee, Chicago, etc., must have records of, say, 13-5, 10-4 etc. to push the Sixers out of the playoffs. Thus the headline for this blog.

At this point, and as the games continue to be checked off and it becomes more and more clear that the team will be in the playoffs this season, the issue becomes: What does it matter? Can they make anything of it? How can these final 20 games, plus (most likely) the playoffs, translate to future improvements? Can they make a postseason splash?

Look, there might be folks out there who believe that once the Sixers are in the playoffs that anything is possible, but the reality is with a 6, 7, or 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, you're playing either Cleveland, Boston, or Orlando. Yes, absolutely, anything is possible. But unless they can stay out of the last three spots (gonna be tough to do), it's a first-round exit. At this point it makes more sense to look at these last 20 games and make some observations.

1.) Samuel Dalembert. He played very well last night: 19 points, 13 rebounds. But that means nothing. Dalembert has a history of sprinkling in these types of games. He did look especially intense last night, although that could have been me paying extra attention. Right now, Dalembert's on-court reputation has been challenged. (Absolutely not his off-court reputation, as he has done phenomenal things for his home country of Haiti and will be honored on Sunday for the NBA's Community Assist Award for February. Dalembert pledged $150,000 to UNICEF to assist Haitian families and children. That's awesome stuff.)

But on the court, these last 20 games, I think it will be interesting to see if he comes out with that same passion and fire that was clear last night, because when he does, he is crucial to the Sixers effectiveness. Before last night's game, he was working a little bit with Moses Malone, and he looked unstoppable on the court. Will that be a flash in the pan? Or will we see him remain focused for a full 20 games? 

2.) Marreese Speights. It isn't charity playing time for which Sixers fans are begging. I think there is a legitimate contingent of Sixers folks who believe the rookie should play more, and not just to see what they have, but because they've noticed he has been a part of big wins. I'll be interested to see how Tony DiLeo and the Sixers use Speights down the stretch.

3.) Three-point defense. The Sixers have said they were going to make adjustments and really focus on the three-point defense. I'd love to be able to have witnessed exactly what changes they made, but practices are closed until free throws at the end. From what DiLeo has said, they have watched film, discussed its importance, tried to show film on when the help was coming from the wrong place, when the help stayed too long, when the rotations were late or miscommunicated. How will this translate down the stretch? If we see same-old, watch out in the playoffs. If the Sixers end up with Orlando -- they have three legitimate outside shooters. Unless the Sixers truly do make adjustments, they will not be able to beat Orlando. They probably can't anyway.

4.) Lou Williams. He's an off-the-bench key. How is his shooting going to be these last 20 games? Last night, he looked aggressive going to the hoop -- as did all the Sixers. Is he going to fade down the stretch? I doubt it. He works hard. He seems to enjoy the game. He seems to be fine in big moments. My money is on Lou's game improving this last stretch.

But what do these things mean? What does this season mean? Perhaps these are questions for an end-of-season post, but at that point basketball will be over. How, with 20 games left, can the Sixers make this a successful season in the minds of their fans? 

A playoff berth?

Winning a couple of games in the first round series? 

Winning a series? 

It all starts in this final segment of games. In my opinion, I don't think it's about winning a playoff series. It seems, right now, fans are frustrated with the inconsistency and effort night-in, night-out. Correct me if I'm wrong. But I think the issue in this final segment is feeling some sense of passion for what they want to accomplish. Coming out of the break, the Sixers had a clear chance to get a 4 or 5 seed. Whether it was better opponents, mental lapses, whatever string of excuses the Sixers offered on a daily basis, the goal just slipped through their fingers, without much accountability as to why. And maybe they didn't know why. 

But now there are 20 games left. And the Sixers need to play those 20 games not like they need to finish 10-10 and slip into the playoffs. Because if that's how they play these 20 games, they'll slip out of the playoffs as fast as they slipped into them. And don't think it won't have an effect as they try to generate interest for next season.