Underdog Sixers become instant fan favorites against Heat
One hundred and fifty years ago this week, our nation split apart. One of these years, we'll get back together again. In the meantime, you can't get Americans to agree on ANYTHING, no matter what it is, except ...
Do I hear a second? A third? A 300 millionth?
The 76ers play Miami in the first round of the playoffs, which makes them America's Team. We're past the point of deciding whether this is fair to LeBron James and friends. They are really good and people really want them to lose. On this, we can (mostly) agree.
The Heat hatred has died down a bit lately, largely because one-third of the country forgot about the NBA to focus on more pressing issues like the release of the NFL preseason schedule. But if the Sixers can just win one of the first two games in Miami, 90 percent of the country will do back-flips, or at least try to do back-flips and giddily tear some ligaments instead. Hey, we're a fat and out-of-shape country.
Well, guess what, folks? I happened to be in attendance the last time the Heat played the 76ers, and I'm here to tell you that --
Uh, no. But the 76ers can make it interesting. They have much more depth than the Heat, and from top to bottom, Philly's roster is arguably more athletic. You rarely see that from a severe underdog in a playoff series. Guys like Thaddeus Young and Jrue Holiday aren't well-known nationally yet, but they are talented young players. Coach Doug Collins has been desperate to get his team a taste of the playoffs, because in a seven-game series, all of your flaws get exposed. Well, that works both ways. The 76ers can expose some of the Heat's flaws.
In that game in Miami last month, the Sixers took a 16-point second-quarter lead. They were up seven with nine minutes left. There were times when I thought they could score more easily than the Heat.
And they lost by 12 anyway.
Miami closed with a 28-9 run. Collins used four timeouts to try to stop it, and he would have pulled the fire alarm if he thought he could get away with it. Dwyane Wade was incredible and James was his usual brilliant self, but that's not what sticks with me.
No, what I remember most is the laughing. It came from Elton Brand, a guy who has averaged almost 19 points and 10 rebounds in his career and was a sort-of MVP candidate a few years ago. Brand was asked, in a few different ways, about what the Heat did so effectively. And he laughed. It was a disbelieving laugh, like he couldn't understand why anybody would bother to ask.
"Once Dwyane Wade got going, it's hard to stop him, and LeBron James got going," Brand said, as though media were unfamiliar with those two gentlemen.
In response to another question, Brand said, "They're just two of the most talented players in the world," and he laughed again.
It really is that simple. Those two guys are just too good. It's hard to believe they are on the same team. When the Heat have it going, Wade and James take turns obliterating the defense. They open up the floor for everybody else. Heck, James Jones is averaging 5.8 points for the Heat, and he hasn't dribbled a ball in three years. (According to 82games.com, 99 percent of James' baskets have been assisted. He has created nothing. His nickname should be Writer's Block.)
Other than the Big Two (James and Wade) and a Half (Chris Bosh), the Heat are not an athletic team. It doesn't matter.
"Bosh gets a dunk under the rim because you're trapping Dwyane Wade at half-court," Brand said. "You're trying to stop LeBron James from driving, you're out of position, they get a rebound, three-pointer. It's so hard to defend those guys when they're rolling like that."
Miami will go to a smaller lineup against the 76ers -- coach Erik Spoelstra puts James at power forward, Bosh at center, then throws Wade and two guards out there. You think maybe it shouldn't work, that there is a way to expose them. But as Collins said, "When they go to that small lineup, they're lethal, because they put two other three-point shooters out there with Wade and LeBron. They've got Bosh on pick-and-rolls. If you don't help, they get to the rim. If you do, they kick out."
Then he said this: "When you put LeBron at the 4, that's his best position. That's where he's a monster, because you can't guard him. I mean, he's bigger than Karl Malone. He's got speed and quickness and power and grace and skill. That's what you're going to see in the playoffs."
You might see it in the Finals. The Heat have two big weaknesses: a) a lack of size and toughness, and b) a lack of playoff experience together. But the Celtics blew their size/toughness advantage when they traded Kendrick Perkins. The top-seeded Bulls are almost as new to the whole postseason thing as the new-look Heat are.
It would have been great to see the Sixers face Miami with a healthy Andre Iguodala. He is one of the best defensive players in the league, the rare player who has a chance to stifle Wade. But he has been fighting knee tendinitis for weeks and is not the same player. The Sixers will have to try to beat Miami with great team defense, something that failed them in the last meeting.
"When you have two of the best players in the world with the ball on the wing, all eyes should be on those guys," Collins said. "You can't be so worried about your guy that you don't know what's going on."
All eyes will be on LeBron and Wade. Most eyes have been on them since last summer. I won't be surprised if Philadelphia puts a scare into the Heat and gets the nation's hopes up. As for actually eliminating those guys ... well, I can still hear Elton Brand laughing.