Don’t deny it. You’re thinking about it. You wouldn’t be a Philadelphia sports fan, full of skepticism and even cynicism, always hedging your hope, if you weren’t thinking about it. Yes, the 76ers are still up three games to two on the Raptors in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Yes, they’re still just one victory away from moving on to the second round. Yes, they have the reassurance of knowing that no NBA team, not a single one, has ever lost a series after taking a three-games-to-none lead.
But then, the longer this series goes, the less reassuring that last fact will become. Instead of providing the Sixers a bulletproof sense of confidence — This has never happened before, so it’s not going to happen now, so let’s just buckle down and beat these guys — recent history will hang over them like a safe on a fraying string. Doc Rivers has been the head coach of three teams that squandered a three-games-to-one lead in the postseason. James Harden has a well-earned reputation for coming up small in the biggest of games. Joel Embiid was the centerpiece of a team last year that held a series lead against an inferior opponent, burped up that lead, and lost the series. That’s already plenty of pressure on the Sixers, and we haven’t even gotten to the part about how, if they lose in seven to the Raptors, it would constitute the greatest collapse in NBA history.
Which is why you’re probably thinking about it.
You’re also probably thinking about it for another reason. It doesn’t take much to remember one or more entries on the lengthy list of collapses by Philadelphia’s sports teams. So at the risk of falling into the default negativism associated with the media and fans here, let’s consider, if the Sixers were to lose to Toronto, where the failure would fall on that list.
Dale Hunter slays the Flyers
Having reached the Stanley Cup Final in two of the previous three seasons, the Flyers took a three-games-to-one lead over the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 1988 playoffs, winning Game 4 with a remarkable rally capped by a Murray Craven goal in overtime. But the Caps won the next three games, beating the Flyers in Game 7 on Hunter’s sudden-death breakaway goal.
The seven weeks from hell
The 1994 Eagles finished 7-9, which sounds like a typical humdrum performance for a mediocre NFL team. That season was anything but. Those Eagles got off to a 7-2 start, routing the eventual Super Bowl-champion 49ers, 40-8, at Candlestick Park, before losing their final seven games. The slide led new owner Jeffrey Lurie to fire coach Rich Kotite.
Cliff Lee coughs up the lead
After winning Game 1 of the 2011 National League Divisional Series, the Phillies were up by four runs after two innings and had Cliff Lee on the mound against the St. Louis Cardinals. By the end of the sixth, though, the lead was gone. The Cardinals’ 5-4 victory changed the entire tenor of the series and propelled them to a five-game upset of the Phils.
The Eagles can’t cover Anthony Carter
The 2002-03 NFC Championship Game – Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10 – might be the single worst loss ever in Philly sports. But it wasn’t really a collapse. This was a collapse. On Dec. 1, 1985, with their record 6-6 and their playoff hopes still alive, the Eagles carried a 23-0 lead into the fourth quarter against the Vikings at Veterans Stadium. They then allowed Minnesota to score four touchdowns in the final 15 minutes. Backup quarterback Wade Wilson threw three TD passes, his last two to wideout Anthony Carter – the winning score coming with 1 minute, 11 seconds left on fourth-and-5 from the Eagles’ 42-yard line.
Have you forgotten last spring?
Of course, you haven’t. The Sixers held a two-games-to-one lead on the Atlanta Hawks in the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series and an 18-point lead in Game 4. They lost Game 4. Then they held a 26-point lead – at home – in Game 5. They lost that, too. Then they lost the series in seven. If you’re having flashbacks these days, it’s understandable.
The Sixers can’t beat the Celtics, Part I
It ought to have been impossible for a team with Wilt Chamberlain — a team that was the defending NBA champion — to squander a 3-1 series lead to any opponent, even to Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. Yet the Sixers managed to pull off the feat in the 1968 Eastern Division Finals.
The Sixers can’t beat the Celtics, Part II
It ought to have been impossible for a team with Julius Erving — a team that was the defending Eastern Conference champion — to squander a 3-1 series lead to any opponent, even to Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. Yet the Sixers managed to pull off the feat in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals.
There would’ve been no Joe Carter home run if …
… the Phillies had managed to protect the five-run lead they built after seven innings on a rainy October night in Game 4 of the 1993 World Series. But their bullpen surrendered six runs in the top of the eighth, and the Toronto Blue Jays’ 15-14 victory gave them a 3-1 lead in the series.
Does the name “Vic Davalillo” mean anything to you?
If you know anything about “Black Friday” — i.e. Game 3 of the 1977 National League Championship Series — it should. His bunt single started what might have been the worst sequence in Phillies history, a succession of base hits, bad decisions, and bungled plays with two outs in the ninth inning that wiped out a 5-3 Phils lead and led to a 6-5 Dodgers victory and a 2-1 LA lead in the series. The Dodgers went on to win the best-of-five NLCS in four games.
Eric Lindros in the fetal position
There’s no better symbol of the Flyers’ inability to finish off the Devils in the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals than the sight of Lindros curled up at center ice, the victim of a crushing blindside hit by Scott Stevens in Game 7. Up 3-1 in the series, the Flyers lost Games 5-7, scoring one goal in each, missing the chance to face a Dallas Stars team that ended up losing to the Devils in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.
The granddaddy of them all
Even if the Sixers were to lose to the Raptors, the 1964 Phillies would retain the title as the ultimate Philly sports heartbreakers. As that team recedes further into the past, the details of the collapse — 6½-game lead with 12 to play, Chico Ruiz, etc. — matter less than the scale and scope of it. Consider: That season marked the only time from 1951 through 1974 that the Phillies finished better than third in the standings. A World Series berth in ‘64 would have broken up a quarter-century of ineptitude and provided a measure of joy to the city’s starving fans. Instead, that year lives on only in baseball encyclopedias and the nightmares of old men.