THIS HAS a way too familiar feel to it.

I've seen the end of this movie before, and I didn't like it the first time.

To a man, the Sixers have said it was going to be different this time.

They said they understood the consequences of tanking it down the stretch and wanted to make sure they were playing well going into the playoffs this year.

They knew they had an achievable goal to shoot for - a higher seed that would steer them away from the Eastern Conference Bermuda Triangle of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic.

And on Saturday, after a victory over the Detroit Pistons, the Sixers were a half-game ahead of the Miami Heat for the fifth seed in the East and a playoff matchup with the Atlanta Hawks.

Instead of stepping up to the occasion, they sank into a hole.

On Sunday, it was a pathetic trip up the Jersey Turnpike and an embarrassing 96-67 loss to the New Jersey Nets, and on Tuesday, the Sixers fell behind by 20 points before losing at Charlotte, 101-98.

So, with a higher seed theirs to control, the Sixers gave it away by losing to teams that won't even finish with winning records or qualify for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

That's unacceptable.

It also has the potential to be deja vu all over again.

Last season, the Sixers were 39-37 with six games remaining.

They limped into the playoffs with a 1-5 finish and were dispatched by the Detroit Pistons in six games.

That, however, was almost excusable.

The Sixers were a young team that overachieved just to make the playoffs.

Despite missing out on a chance for a winning record and possibly a better playoff seed than seventh, simply making the playoffs was viewed as a positive for that squad.

I can't say the same for this year's team.

There is no reason these Sixers (40-37) cannot win at least two more games and finish with their first winning record in four seasons.

Given the position they were in starting this week, I can fault them if they do not finish ahead of Miami and end up with the sixth, seventh or eighth seed in the playoffs.

If that happens, getting swallowed up by one of the teams in the Bermuda Triangle would be completely on the Sixers.

Just making the playoffs cannot be viewed as a success this season.

It's not that they have to win a series, because when free-agent signee Elton Brand was lost for the season, the expectation of winning in the first round had to be lowered.

But the Sixers, who have already clinched a playoff spot, have to go into the postseason the right way.

They have to be playing good basketball, not stumbling over themselves and losing to teams like the Nets and Bobcats, who were looking for any excuse to avoid mounting a challenge.

I almost would be inclined to give the Sixers more grace had they fallen out of contention after losing Brand.

But they showed resiliency. They showed the determination to fight back and position themselves to make the playoffs and possibly be a factor.

It would be a step back if the Sixers throw that all away by finishing 1-4 and not getting a winning record.

Obviously, the Sixers miss second-year forward Thaddeus Young, who was performing like their best player before he injured his ankle, but every team has some kind of injury at this team of year.

Young's absence does not qualify as an excuse for scoring just 67 points against the Nets.

If Andre Iguodala wants to be considered an elite player, he can't score five while taking just eight shots as his team is getting run out of the gym in a critical game.

A true lead player tries to take control of a game like that, not look to get Reggie Evans and Theo Ratliff into the offensive flow.

Missing Young had nothing to do with giving up 101 points to the offensively challenged Bobcats.

That was a team defensive breakdown - 98 points should have been enough to beat Charlotte.

What's done can't be changed, but starting with tonight at Chicago, the Sixers have to understand that the playoffs have already started for them, and they are down 0-2.

There are five games remaining, three involving Cleveland and Boston.

It's not going to be easy, but the Sixers need to play as if they want a different ending than a year ago instead of just talking about it. *

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