Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley first uttered his favorite catchphrase — “[Someone] said the playoffs don’t start until the home team loses at home” — back in 1987 when he was coaching the Los Angeles Lakers.
That “someone” happened to be longtime Phoenix Gazette sports columnist Joe Gilmartin, who died in February at age 88. For posterity, Gilmartin actually said, “No playoff series truly begins until the road team wins a game.”
Since then, dozens of players and coaches have turned it into the cliché of the NBA when playing games in mid-April through June.
Regardless of how the sentiment is phrased, the 2018 playoffs have officially begun for the 76ers after they lost, 113-103, to the Miami Heat in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal Monday at the Wells Fargo Center.
Gone is the Sixers’ home-court advantage. Now, they have to win at least one game in Miami or they cannot advance to the conference semifinals.
Over is the 17-game winning streak that the Sixers carried into the postseason, when everybody’s record reset to 0-0. Now, they have to regain momentum in what could become a grind-it-out dogfight with the Heat.
Still up in the air is the injury status of all-star center Joel Embiid, who, no matter what some slightly delusional fans have recently claimed, greatly enhances the Sixers’ chances of winning a seven-game series by playing, as opposed to watching and cheering from the bench.
If Embiid returns from his orbital bone fracture for Game 3 on Thursday or even Game 4 on Saturday, the complexion of the series could quickly shift again.
Asked about anticipating the looming shadow of Embiid if he enters the fray, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra replied: “You have to. It would be irresponsible if we didn’t.”
In a season of constant learning, the Sixers now face their biggest test to date.
“You can phrase it in a bunch of ways,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “To me, it’s the reality of NBA basketball and it only gets harder.
“Our guys will learn more than they’ve learned in a regular season in the next few weeks, however long we play in the playoffs, about themselves in real time. This game equals the NBA playoffs.”
The playoffs mean facing the same team for potentially seven games with all the opponents’ adjustments that are focused exclusively on neutralizing what you just did best and exploiting what you didn’t so well.
Game 2 wasn’t so much about X’s and O’s as it was about the Heat’s amping up the physicality – especially in the decisive second quarter, when they battered the Sixers, 34-13.
A change in attitude can be as big as any adjustment.
“It’s unsettling,” Sixers veteran guard JJ Redick said of the team’s response to what Miami did in Game 2. “I think that we as a group haven’t been through the fire of the playoffs. This will sharpen you, strengthen you as a player and as a man and as a group. Games like this, I think, are good for us, but it doesn’t feel good with us.”
Spoelstra has coached 115 playoff games and has won two NBA titles. He has seen enough to not be baited into expanding on what was a huge win for the Heat.
“No, no, come on,” Spoelstra said about whether being 1-1 significantly changes his team’s mindset. “If you’ve watched our games this year with Philly, they were just crazy games, so competitive.
“All we did was get one game. We have to get back to Miami, rest for a day, and get ready to gear up again.”
Game 2 represented a 37-point swing, but that doesn’t mean anything more than the Sixers’ winning Game 1 by 27.
The playoffs are about what happens in the next game.
“We will go down to Miami and be ready to play Game 3,” Brown said. “[The Heat] did what they had to do. They broke our serve. They got a split.
“Somehow, we have to try to do the same. I’ve got faith in our group that it is in them to do that.”