BEFORE THE GAME, Tony DiLeo was asked if he had said anything to his team about the inherent danger of trap games.

"No," said the Sixers coach. "They know the importance of this. They know it's win or go home. If this was a regular-season game, then it will be a topic of

conversation: 'Don't let down because Dwight isn't in there.'

"But this is win or go home. So that's the mentality we have."

DiLeo made some nice moves in this series, but that is one of two miscalculations he might want back after last night's 114-89 home loss to the Orlando Magic eliminated the Sixers from the playoffs and, maybe as important, eliminated the chance to play in a seventh game.

Here's what else it eliminated: any impetus to sell more season tickets. That became painfully evident with 7 minutes, 51 seconds remaining, when most of the 16,691 in attendance fled - and I mean fled - for their homes.

Many of those who remained did so, seemingly, for one reason: to express their guttural displeasure at what seemed to be a truly gutless effort by a group that had begun this series delivering exactly the opposite. Often they booed the entire team. But at times, especially when Samuel Dalembert left or re-entered, it became quite personal.

DiLeo also might have miscalculated in focusing on Howard's play after a 91-78 loss in Orlando on Tuesday, especially given his subsequent suspension. Why? Because it gave the young Sixers a reason to believe they had lost that game for reasons other than being outplayed, possibly adding to the toxic dynamic of Game 6.

And it gave the Magic a rallying point that Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy harped on before the game.

"I think our guys were motivated because most everybody was writing us off today," Van Gundy said. "Not giving us a chance. If we had to go a long time, had to play the rest of the playoffs without Dwight Howard, we'd be in some serious, serious trouble. But you see it all the time, even in the regular season, with the best player out, people rise up. They're extremely motivated to prove it's not all one guy."

Howard's minutes were taken by Marcin Gortat and sometimes Tony Battie. This was supposed to enable the Sixers to clamp down on the Magic's outside shooting, not to mention own the paint. But Dalembert was a disaster, Theo Ratliff had more fouls (two) than points (zero) and Marreese Speights scored four points in almost 14 minutes of play, his largest chunk of time in this series.

In contrast, Gortat scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting to go with 15 rebounds. And Battie had six rebounds and seven points in his 15:37.

"They're all laughing in there now, saying once we got rid of Dwight's 24 points and 24 rebounds then we could really open up and play basketball," Van Gundy said.

The grit the Sixers showed in turning this anticipated walkover into a series evaporated, horrifically. The suspension of Howard and the absence of key contributor Courtney Lee with a broken nose were supposed to give the Sixers an advantage in every phase of the game. Instead, they were outplayed in all phases. And worse, they were outhustled at home by a team that had a game to give and homecourt advantage.

"I read Thaddeus Young's comments saying that Dwight being out 'will be huge for us,' " Van Gundy said. "You've got to watch all that stuff in this league. This league will bring you to your knees."

Young had his worst game of this series, making four of 11 shots, eaten alive by the backdown game of Rashard Lewis, who scored a game-high 29 points. The Magic, which had struggled to make its threes at times during this series, dropped 12 of 26. Rafer Alston and J.J. Redick, two guards who were supposed to struggle with Howard's absence, combined for 36 points, making eight of 14 treys they attempted.

Dalembert had also boasted before the game that Howard's absence would allow his game to flourish, that "I'll be free to be me."

For those who believe that is not often a good thing, Dalembert provided a strong case. In more than 30 minutes of play, against the likes of Gortat and Battie, he scored eight points. It was morbid comedy at times, passes traveling untouched through his legs on the block, some of his attempts to dunk thwarted by the bottom of the rim. When a late scuffle with Hedo Turkoglu led to an erroneous announcement that both players had been ejected, fans cheered the error and booed the correction - that Dalembert was, in fact, still allowed to play.

DiLeo called the whole thing "a total collapse."

"We never had that second punch," he said. "They hit us and we never really came back with anything serious . . . I don't quite know why."

And you had to wonder. If he had to do it all over again, would DiLeo maybe have stated the obvious to his young team?

The same thing that veteran Andre Miller, now a free agent, said afterwards?

"You don't get this opportunity too many times," said Miller, who scored 24. "You want to be able to take advantage of those opportunities. I think we knew that . . . We just got caught up in the moment. And there is no one we can point a finger at but ourselves." *

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