Should we celebrate the rise of the Sixers?
You see, at some point this week, barring an incredible (but not impossible) comeback by the Bulls, the 2012 Philadelphia 76ers will join an elite crew of eighth seeds that upset their top seeded competitors. The 1995 Denver Nuggets were the first, followed by the 1999 New York Knicks, the 2007 Golden State Warriors, and most recently, the 2011 Memphis Grizzlies. In each of those cases, the underdog’s victory was widely celebrated as a David-Goliath scenario, where a ragtag team of scrappers beat an arrogant and unprepared team of fat cats. Many of these series have become emblematic of the playoffs itself, capturing ideas like hustle, determination, grit and intelligence, and the teams that completed the unlikely task of unseating the giant take their rightful places among the pantheon of NBA playoff greats.
However, this is not the narrative of this presumptive 1-8 upset. Upsets in the past have had celebrated signature moments that become emblematic of the eighth seed’s triumph. Whether that’s Mutombo’s post-buzzer grasp on the game ball, Allan Houston’s big shot, or Boom Dizzle’s enormous dunk, each of these series has contained a singular event that fans and analysts can point to, and say, definitively, “this is where the giant fell, and this is when the meek inherited the Earth.” We need these moments to make sense of the upset; to provide an explanation as to how things went so right for the underdogs, and so horribly wrong for the presumed front runners.
This series’ signature moment was terrible. It occurred when Derrick Rose clutched his leg and crumpled to the floor, his anterior cruciate ligament shot, his face contorted with anguish and agony. That has been — and will be — the defining moment of this series. It had nothing to do with the 76ers, and everything to do with the Chicago Bulls. It was at that moment, that awful, deplorable moment, when the Sixers were reluctantly raised into the pantheon, whether they, their fans, and observers of the NBA were ready for them or not. Now, we have watched them eke out three victories against a Bulls team missing its two most important players (apologies to Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer), a regular season sheep in a playoff wolf’s skin.
So what are we supposed to do with this red-headed second round darling? Unlike the Nuggets, Knicks, Warriors and Grizzlies of the past, there is no swelling pride or excitement for this team. It is largely assumed that these Sixers were well on their way to a 4-0 or, at best, 4-1 defeat at the hands of the mechanically efficient Bulls. Moreover, we wanted them to be quickly dispatched by the Bulls. Casual fans of the NBA had no desire to see the Bulls get upset in the first round. Our hearts were set on a Miami-Chicago Eastern Conference Finals, followed ideally by a Bulls-Thunder or Bulls-Lakers finals. Derrick Rose and company were going to bring the Finals back to the United Center, conjuring memories of Jordan, Pippen and Phil Jackson back in the nineties. It was the Bulls year, and the Sixers were just a step along the way. However, that assumption has fallen apart, and we are looking seriously at a Sixers-Celtics semifinal match in the second round.
No one was ready for this — perhaps not even Philadelphia itself. National pundits struggle to offer meaningful commentary about the team since no one watched them the entire season. Local analysts hesitatingly congratulate a team they were ready to dissect due to their regular season inconsistencies and troubling long term prospects. Indeed, it seems as if most people were ready to watch the Sixers flame out in the playoffs, so they could get to the questions they really want to ask. Questions like: Would they fire Doug Collins, who was seemingly tuned out by his players at the end of the season? Would they trade Andre Iguodala, the talented but limited star? Would they amnesty Elton Brand, a quintessential professional whose athletic talents have all but disappeared? Would they figure out what to do with swingman Evan Turner, whose flashes of brilliance, at least in the playoffs, have consistently superseded his stretches of inconsistency and ineptitude? These were the questions on everyone’s mind.
But for the time being, those questions must wait. Now, we must wonder what types of matchup problems Rondo will cause for Philadelphia’s backcourt, or if Iggy can take advantage of a hobbled Paul Pierce. We must wonder how Elton Brand’s going to deal with Kevin Garnett, and if Lou Williams is going to be able to score against Boston’s brilliant on ball defenders. We’ll have to wonder if Spencer Hawes can keep playing well, and if Doug Collins can possibly out-coach Doc Rivers. The eighth seed out East is about to complete a historic upset that none of us want, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.
The Sixers are on their way to the second round of the playoffs. It’s something we’re just going to have to deal with, and wonder if things could have been different.