It can be exhausting living in a football town that has a good basketball team. This is true for most of the other sports, really. When I covered the Phillies, every April between 2008 and 2012 was a 30-day exercise in convincing people that life was still worth carrying on even after a weekend sweep against the Mets (every April from 2013 onward has been an exercise in the opposite). Losing three straight games within the context of a baseball season is equivalent to punting on three straight drives within the context of a football season. And basketball is whatever you get when you double that.
(As I pause to allow you to check the math, let me just say that the only thing more exhausting than living in a football town is listening to people try to argue that it isn’t a football town. Tom Gola: nice man, nice player, never had anyone nickname his private parts.)
Which brings us to your hometown Sixers. By the time they take the court against the Mavericks on Friday night, it will have been a whole calendar week since they last looked like a fully functional basketball team. The intervening days have seen an uninspiring win over the Pelicans, a 20-point shellacking at the hands of the Nets, and a loss to the Heat in which their starting five looked like a group of sixth graders that had been plucked out of the crowd at a middle school basketball camp to serve as the offensive players in a demonstration about the 2-3 zone.
In short, the Sixers are currently riding a two-game skid in their nightly attempt to ease our neuroses and convince us that they really are capable of winning this town’s first NBA championship since 1983. Of the last three games, it’s that last one that has really complicated the quest for hearts and minds. That’s mostly because it happens to be the Sixers’ most recent defeat, which is the kind of memory that only the next defeat can dislodge from fans’ minds.
Even more than that, though, the loss to the Heat unfolded in such a way that it seemed to have been conceived for the express purpose of reigniting people’s deepest fears about this team. By the final buzzer, it felt as if the basketball Gods had decided that it had been too long since they’d heard the factions claim that Brett Brown cannot coach, or that Ben Simmons cannot shoot, or that Joel Embiid cannot possibly be expected to put up 30 and 10 enough times in a seven-game series to get the Sixers through to the NBA Finals.
Now, without a doubt, there was plenty of evidence available to anybody who sets out to substantiate any one of these three stated beliefs. In an ideal world, the Sixers would have spent fewer than 31 minutes looking as if Erik Spoelstra was flying around the Wells Fargo Center on a broomstick cackling “Muahahahahahaha” instead of simply telling his players to keep playing zone until it no longer worked. And, in that ideal world, everybody would remember that Embiid is still seven feet tall against man or zone, while Embiid himself would have the quick-passing and reaction ability out of the high post that can rot a zone from within. And even if it is a stretch to expect Simmons to ever become a player who can break a zone with his quick penetration or shoot consistently over top of it, an ideal world would certainly see him decide to attack the rim when there are five seconds left and he is in the open court in transition with the chance to tie the game.
On Wednesday night, none of those things happened. And, yeah, even if the only thing that matters is what each night’s game tells us about the Sixers’ prospects for the postseason, it’s worth noting that three commonly held beliefs about this team were substantiated in a loss that could easily end up impacting playoff seeding. This is especially true if you happen to be one of those people who subscribes to those beliefs.
Personally, I don’t think anybody has seen enough to hold a conclusive opinion about any of this. And I don’t think anybody will have seen enough until they see this team in the postseason. Because here is what we’ve seen so far: The Sixers have beaten the Celtics twice, once at home, once on the road. They’ve split with the Raptors, and they’ve split with the Heat. They’ve beaten the Pacers in the only game they’ve played against them. That’s a 5-2 record against four of the Eastern Conference’s five leading contenders.
Before this two-game losing streak, the Sixers were on pace for 60 wins. They are led by two stars who, by the start of the postseason, will have played in nearly 20 percent more NBA games in their careers than they have to date.
“We’re on the right path,” Brown said the day before the Sixers played the Heat.
Despite the loss, that has not changed.