ORLANDO - As award shows will quickly be upon us, let us present the award for most bizarre losses in a single season to the 76ers.
For the fifth time, the Sixers found a way to gift-wrap a win and present it to the opposition, this time a 99-98 overtime debacle to the Orlando Magic last night.
Someone would have had to accept the award for coach Doug Collins after the game, as he pulled his team together in the locker room, told them, "We fought so hard and gave them eight points in two possessions. Bring it in."
With that, after a quick meeting with the media, the coach grabbed his bag, flung it over his shoulder and took his red face with bulging veins out of the new and glorious Amway Center.
The reasoning for his ire was pretty simple, culminating in two plays.
Lou Williams had given the Sixers a 90-86 lead with 22.1 seconds left in regulation when he made one of two foul shots. The Magic got the ball to Jason Richardson, 25 feet from the basket beyond the top of the key. Richardson, who at that point was 1-for-9 from the field, rose and got slapped on the arm by Andre Iguodala. The bomb fell. Richardson's ensuing foul shot tied the game and sent it into overtime.
In overtime, after Iguodala had given the Sixers a 96-95 lead with 1 minute, 59 seconds left, J.J. Redick drained a trey from almost the same spot as Richardson, while being bumped by Williams. Redick finished off his four-point play and, ultimately, sent Collins storming out of the building into the warm Orlando air.
"It's another lost opportunity, late-game mistakes," said forward Elton Brand, shaking his head in bewilderment. "It's a heartbreaker, and it's happened numerous times this season. We just won two [close] games, and it seemed like we got over the hump."
That seemingly insurmountable hump, on which the Sixers slid backward in bizarre losses earlier this season to Washington (twice), Atlanta and Detroit, did seem to be a thing of the past, particularly after two nail-biting wins against Milwaukee and Charlotte in their previous two games. But the hump returned last night.
"He just shot a shot and made it," Iguodala, who finished with 15 points, seven rebounds and six assists, said of Richardson. "Anything outside of that, whether it was a foul or not, I didn't make the call. [The referee] made the call. You can't do anything about it."
A good barometer for Collins on how his team will perform usually comes on its first 10 offensive possessions in the first quarter and third quarter of games.
His team overcame horrific beginnings in both quarters last night before getting to the point of utter disappointment. The Sixers started the game shooting 1-for-8 with two turnovers on their initial 10 possessions and trailed, 8-3. To begin the third, they went 1-for-6, with four giveaways, and quickly saw a five-point lead evaporate.
But a strong end to the third quarter, during which Magic center Dwight Howard was saddled on the bench with four fouls, gave them a seven-point lead entering the fourth.
But the Magic, with Howard back on the court, scored 10 of the quarter's first 12 points to take a one-point lead at 73-72, and the fight was on. No team led by more than three points until Iguodala made two fouls shots with 28.6 seconds remaining for an 89-84 lead. Redick cut the lead to three with an easy layup with 23.9 seconds left before all hell broke loose for the Sixers.
"It's kind of self-explanatory," said Sixers guard Jrue Holiday, who collected 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists. "We know what we did wrong. We shouldn't have allowed those two fouls. We played hard.
"I don't really know why, I just know it keeps happening to us. I thought we played great defense. I didn't see the first [four-point] foul and I didn't see the second one. I don't know, it's just unfortunate."
The loss wasted another good offensive outing by Williams, who led the team with 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Thaddeus Young made eight of his 10 shots en route to 17 points, while Evan Turner posted 10 points and eight rebounds.
Sub Ryan Anderson had a game-high 20 points for Orlando (27-15), which was coming off a five-game road trip. Howard, who fouled out with less than a minute remaining, had 18 points, but shot only 10-for-22 from the foul line. Jameer Nelson added 16, while Hedo Turkoglu and Redick posted 12 each and Brandon Bass added 11.
"Ryan Anderson killed us," Collins said. "The one thing he can do now is, if you switch pick-and-roll, he can get in there and post you. And when Dwight Howard was out, he was the guy that made all of the critical baskets for them. You've got to really communicate when you play this team, and if you don't, then you get caught, and you're not sure if you're switching or if you're not."
The Sixers did have a chance to win the game at the end when they got the ball with 22.9 seconds left in overtime trailing by the point. They gave the ball to Iguodala at the top of the key, and he was able to get a decent shot off from 11 feet, but it missed. Turner grabbed the rebound and missed a tough hook in the lane before the ball landed and a scramble ensued as the horn sounded.
"It's disappointing," Collins said. "We're up five and it looks like we had a chance to be up five again, missed a free throw, gave up a four-point play. I mean, we've done that at least three or four times this year. Had a game in our hand and just let it get away. I've never seen it before."
That wasn't an acceptance speech, just the cold, hard truth.
The Sixers get a chance to regroup tonight when they play at the Charlotte Bobcats, whom they beat in overtime on Monday. Their next home game is Saturday against the Utah Jazz.
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