The end of an NBA season is like sitting in a dentist chair; you can’t wait for the agony to end.  Some teams have been sitting in the chair all season long, getting drilled for cavities and root canals.  For teams in the playoffs— like the Sixers— the final few games are more like a relaxation period, like, ahh we’ve finally made it here.  This Philadelphia basketball season has been full of overachieving and not many people (including the players) felt compelled to get amped for this one. Outside of the 14-0 in the second quarter, the Wells Fargo Center was lifeless on Monday.

One thing is finally official though.  The Eastern Conference playoffs are set in stone and our 76ers (41-40) will be facing the daunting challenge that is the Miami Heat.  We assured ourselves the seventh seed following Monday night’s lackluster 95-85 loss against the Magic.  Orlando somehow managed to only win by 10 points despite the fact that they out-rebounded the Sixers 56-31, and that margin was at 21-2 midway through the second quarter.

Doug Collins sometimes can construct a defensive game plan to subdue opponents without Andre Iguodala.  Orlando is not one of those opponents.  According to Twitter reports by reliable sources, Iguodala spoke with Collins over the weekend about needing some ‘rest’ before the playoffs began.   The Magic play like a March Madness team; living and dying by three point shooting and utilizing height advantages.  So with Dre out of the lineup, the Sixers perimeter defense was prime for the picking.  Orlando capitalize, nailing 11-of-25 three’s (five from Jameer Nelson) using the classic inside-outside offense with Dwight Howard as the centerpiece.  Howard was also very good on the night with 19 points, 13 boards and three earth shattering dunks including an alley-oop on top of Jrue Holiday’s head.

Somehow things were actually close for a good part of this game.  The Sixers went into halftime only trailing 50-47 after a substantial 14-0 run in the second quarter spearheaded by Elton Brand (22 points, five boards) and a rejuvenated Andres Nocioni (13 points and six boards in 34 minutes).  Then the second half hit and Orlando used Howard’s presence to force the Sixers into shooting way too many outside shots.  Philly missed eight consecutive attempts at one point during Orlando’s 21-4 run, a burst that had Orlando coasting the rest of the evening.

The spark and energy just wasn’t there, minus Lou and AI9. Brand’s 22 points were extremely quiet.  Thaddeus Young, who is ranked 9thin the League in field goal percentage, missed eight shots (4-of-12).  Hawes, Turner and Meeks combined to score just 18 points.  Turner had excelled in previous games sans Iguodala in the lineup, so it wasn’t encouraging to see him struggle on 2-of-7 shooting in 25 minutes.  I think the Sixers would’ve had trouble beating the Wizards on a night of offense like this.

The one player I was hoping would show up offensively was Jrue Holiday.  Granted, he made some nifty passes on his 11 assists but Holiday was outdueled by Nelson and committed four turnovers. Holiday has had at least three turnovers in his last five games.  This is not exactly the best time for your second-year point guard to be making some of the mental mistakes he has been.

The Eastern Conference is as wide open as we’ve seen since the days of the last Sixer NBA Finals berth in 2000-2001.  Many of you are going to think it’s wide open because of all the player relocation to new teams, and obviously that has something to do with it.  The main reason it’s up for grabs is that every team has specific weaknesses.  For instance, Chicago has only one clutch scorer.   Boston’s interior defense and effort after the Perkins trade has come into question.  And of course Miami’s been mocked all year for a weak bench and not being able to finish out close games.

Here’s a quick look at the Sixers three most pressing issues with just one game remaining left on the schedule until the Miami Heat series.

A)     Can Jrue Holiday score more?

He’s only posting 13 points in his last five games and averaging slightly above 30 percent shooting.  Sophomore slumps come and go but Holiday will be presented with a favorable matchup in Mario Chalmers.  When Jrue’s getting to the bucket with his left hand, he, and this team are usually at their best.

B)      Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams’ health?

Obviously Dre has played through pain a good portion of this season.  He has the hardest task in all of sports: limiting LeBron James. And actually, I’m not too worried that he won’t be able to do that. I’m more worried about whether Doug Collins is going to ease in Lou Williams to a different role.  Williams is most affective as a ball hog who gets to the free throw line.  I’ll be the first to admit that this team misses him more than I expected them to.  Without Lou on his game the Sixers chances go from 5 percent to a little below 1 percent.

C)      What’s the game plan?

To me it’s obvious: you have to force Miami to shoot threes.  The Sixers are good in transition.  The problem?  The Heat are incredible in the fast break game and will eat you alive specifically in Miami. Keeping LeBron and D-Wade shooting from the perimeter will be mandatory if we want to see more than four games.


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