The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the visiting New York Knicks 100-98 to extend their win streak to three games, and place them only two games behind their Big Apple rival for second place in the Atlantic Division, and sixth in the Eastern Conference.
The Sixers received exceptional performances from veterans Elton Brand (33 points, 16 rebounds—five offensive boards—and two blocks) and Andre Iguodala (18 points, 4 rebounds and 16 assists, without a turnover) as they rallied to win despite dismal play in the second and third quarters.
The hard-earned victory, their seventh in their last 10 games, boosted their record to 23-26, which is actually their high-water mark for the 2010-11 campaign.
So, is this cause for optimism within Sixers Nation, however small a dominion?
I would say "yes," even if the goals are admittedly quite modest: self-respect and relevancy, as opposed to world dominance.
By way of explanation, please take a journey through this season, and the five seasons that have preceded it. Feel free to hold your breath as necessary, as this is not a journey through a modern dynasty.
On November 26, the Sixers lost 99-90 at Miami to drop their record to a pitiful 3-13. From that nadir, they have rallied to win 20 out of their last 33 contests. That’s one of the best records in the conference during that span; it's too bad the first 16 games had to count.
Philly fans would have to include the following among the encouraging trends during these last 33 games:
Although they've suffered some soul-crushing losses, they have not dropped more than two in a row. This is a sign of a resilient, well-coached team.
Point guard Jrue Holliday (only 20) continues his own rapid development at a position where you need terrific play.
Elton Brand (roughly 15 points and 10 rebounds on 52 percent shooting) has been an asset, if not a superstar this year.
Lou Williams and Thad Young lead a bench (which also includes rookie Evan Turner) that is among the better ones in the NBA.
Turner, while he should not even get a sniff of any rookie-of-the-year votes, is showing signs of being a solid NBA player.
It's a point of debate as to whether Andre Iguodala's good all-around game should be cause for optimism, as he is been a lightning rod for criticism around Philly for the last few years.
To many, Iggy is a Robin making Batman money, which is hard to dispute. What is also hard to dispute is that he is a great athlete and a fine player who should either be dealt (an upgrade at shooting guard or center would be nice) or absent a willing trade partner, appreciated for what he does bring to the team.
An unqualified bright spot has been the effective coaching of Doug Collins, who is about to turn 60 but has the look, sound and zest of a man half his age. It appears that Collins has the team building the type of chemistry that will take them...
...take them where exactly?
In a town where the Sixers have taken a backseat to the Phillies, Eagles and (even) the Flyers—all perennial playoff teams with the potential to win a championship—there is not much interest in the team simply making the playoffs. Understandable.
Even if the Sixers overtake the Knicks for the sixth seed in the conference, they would likely meet the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls, who currently sport a 34-14 record. A seventh or eighth seed would likely get them a date on the road with the Boston Celtics or the Miami Heat. Ouch!
So, why would this columnist, or any self-respecting Sixers fan, advocate this team qualifying for the playoffs?
Let me pose the question this way: If the Sixers missed the playoffs, what makes you think that a pick anywhere from No. 11 through No. 14 would be a drastic improvement over a playoff spot and (perhaps) the No. 17 pick? Yes, they could get lucky two years in a row and win a higher spot, so who might you take with, say, the fifth or sixth selection?
If I could order it, I'd accept the puncher's chance that comes with a sixth or seventh seed—along with playoff experience for guys like Holliday and Turner—over a few ping pong balls in the lottery.
To understand this mentality, one need only look at the Sixers' record over the last five years, a stretch that has seen them only enter the playoffs twice, without winning a series:
2005-06: 38-44, no playoffs
2006-07: 35-47, lottery again
2007-08: 40-42, seventh seed
2008-09: 41-41, sixth seed
2009-10: 27-55, and a No. 2 lottery pick spent on Evan Turner
The 2010-11 Sixers have the look of a 42-40 team that will probably bow out in the first round. In many seasons, I would quietly wish for them to tank (shh, don't tell anyone) and go for maximum ping pong balls.
But not this year.
A projected 15-game improvement, an exciting nothing-to-lose playoff series and a reward for the eternally young Doug Collins and the truly young Jrue Holliday, Evan Turner and company just has a whole different feel to it.
For more information on Matt Goldberg’s books, other writings and speaking engagements, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org