Lou Williams had done this before. As Williams hit his fifth bucket in a row in the fourth quarter of the Hawks’ 109-106 comeback win over the Sixers last night, I remembered the time when he did this for Philly. That was a decade ago, and LeBron James had just taken his talents to South Beach. The Sixers, the 7th seed that year, were led by Jrue Holiday, Elton Brand and Andre Iguodala. Evan Turner was a rookie. Spencer Hawes was a starter. It was no surprise that they were overwhelmed by the Miami Heat’s Big 3. But after going down 3-0, the Sixers came alive late in Game 4. Williams scored 11 fourth quarter points—including the go-ahead three with nine seconds left—to give the Sixers an 86-82 win. It was a one-game reprieve from elimination, precisely the sort of cosmetic victory that Sam Hinkie eventually convinced ownership wasn’t worth prioritizing over a full-tilt rebuild.
Williams scored 13 points in last night’s Hawks win. This comeback was way bigger than Philly’s in the 2011 playoffs: Atlanta trailed by as many as 26 in the game. After overcoming an 18-point deficit in their Game 4 win, the Hawks are now just one win from the Eastern Conference Finals. In some alternate universe, the Sixers finished off a hard-fought but dominating five-game sweep last night; in this one, they are one loss from elimination. They still haven’t been past the second round since 2001.
A decade ago, the Sixers closed Game 4 of the first round on a 10-0 run. (The Sixers, incidentally, led that game by 16 before choking away the big lead over just five minutes in the second quarter.) The Daily News called it the “Miracle of Easter” on the front page (the Flyers also staved off elimination that day). “We’ve always been a team that fought, all the way until the end,” Williams said postgame. “I just wanted to give us an opportunity to win the basketball game.” Doug Collins, then the Sixers coach, called Williams the team’s veteran leader: “He’s our personality. He’s our juice. He’s our voice. He’s the guy everybody on our team rallies around.” Yes, this is back when the 76ers slogan was “Show Ya Luv.”
Ten years later, Lou Williams is, I guess, even more of a veteran leader. This time, the Hawks scored 15 straight before the Sixers’ Seth Curry hit a meaningless two-pointer just before the buzzer. Williams had struggled this year since getting sent to Atlanta in exchange for Rajon Rondo, but now he has his hometown team on the verge of a series upset. His quotes have gotten so much more vivid as he’s aged. “Give me an inch I try to take a foot,” Williams said after Wednesday’s game. “Give me a foot I try to take a mile. And before you know it the basket looks like the ocean to me and I start playing with a lot of confidence and everybody else starts playing with it. It just starts clicking.”
“I’ve done it so many times,” he said, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s just a zone that you’re in. Everything is blacked out. You don’t hear the crowd. Sometimes you don’t even see the defender in front of you, you’re just zoned out. Two or three shots in, alright Will, here we go again.” I knew about all this, and even brought up Williams’ big playoff fourth quarter to my friends last night. It didn’t seem like the Sixers were going to choke away a lead this big, did it?
Obviously, it was in the back of my mind the whole time. If a Philadelphia sports team has a big lead, I am always waiting to see how they’re going to lose. But these Sixers also seemed like the type to lose in a heartbreaking way. They’d just coughed up an 18-point lead the day before. They had stretches this year where they routinely struggled to hold big leads. In May, the Sixers needed a buzzer-beater to top the Spurs after leading by 17. The next night, they led the Bulls by 23 before pulling out a close win. In February they led a shorthanded Rockets team by 25 and almost lost. There were stretches this year where the postgame headline could always have been some version of: FANS SUFFER THROUGH ANOTHER TORTUROUS SIXERS WIN. The Sixers lost some of these games, too, like one against Milwaukee in March where they led by 17; they led Utah by 11 and lost by 11.
And. Wow. Oh, man. The game started so well. Allen Iverson and Aaron McKie, the star and the sixth man from the 2001 NBA Finals team, came out pregame. (We’d known Iverson was going to be there because he’d been spotted at the nearby casino beforehand.) Not that NBA games start even close to on time anymore, but Iverson delayed this one even further. He was screaming, soaking in the cheers, while McKie laughed at the whole scene. Once again, it was so loud.
The Sixers looked great to open the game. They hit their first five shots. They were shooting 90 percent at one point. They led by 10, then 12, then 13, then 15! The Hawks couldn’t score. They had just 40 points at halftime. Dr. J was there. World B. Free—a man who spoke at no fewer than five basketball camps I attended as a child, the man who once dunked in the final seconds of a blowout win so fans could win free hamburgers and said “I know what it’s like to need a hamburger, I haven’t forgotten that” as an explanation—was even in attendance. I knew that wearing my New Balance sneakers that made headlines—well, a headline—the day before was the right choice.
Look, they had to win. A few years ago Dennis Grove, one of my all-time favorite Peripheral Behind-the-Scenes Philadelphia Sports People, started putting his cat in the air when the Sixers won. It was silly and pointless, and so obviously I did it all the time. #RaiseTheCat caught on. And now Izzy, Grove’s cat, is dying of cancer. At least three publications wrote about how sad it is yesterday. We were gonna #RaiseTheCat for her one last time. Jesus Christ, man. I’m crying as I write this. How the fuck did they lose this game?
Even the Sixers’ mistakes were entertaining, at first. Both Dwight Howard and Ben Simmons missed dunks so violently that the ball flew into the stands. Simmons continued to struggle at the free throw line. When he missed a free throw, a slow murmur spread through the crowd. Why couldn’t he shoot better? Aren’t free throws not that tough for a guard? Why can’t he try going underhand? When he made a free throw, the crowd reacted as if the student manager got in for the final game and hit a three-pointer. But whatever. These were all things to worry about going forward. I was ready to soak in an easy win, then head back to the casino to take some of Allen Iverson’s money.
It didn’t go that way. The Hawks scored 40 in the fourth quarter alone. Trae Young, who had 39, gave the Hawks the lead for good with three free throws with 1:26 to play. Meanwhile, the Sixers went 23-for-38 from the line. Only Joel Embiid and Seth Curry converted field goals for the Sixers in the second half. This is an all-time Philadelphia sports collapse. The top-seeded team is one game away from elimination, and they earned every bit of it.
I thought of another Sixers playoff series when I was leaving the arena, in a sea of angry people doing half-hearted E-A-G-L-E-S chants. In 2008, the Sixers were once again the 7th seed against the second-seeded Detroit Pistons. They stole Game 1. When the series returned to Philly, they obliterated the Pistons, 95-75. Samuel Dalembert had 22 and Andre Miller had 21. The crowd was screaming “REGGIE! REGGIE! REGGIE!” for Reggie Evans. The Sixers led Game 4 by 10 at the half. This seemed like the breakthrough. The 7th seed, a goofy team of spare parts, were about to take a 3-1 lead on the recent NBA champion Pistons! I was so hopeful.
The Pistons took control of the series with a near-perfect third quarter, and it was never anything less than obvious that Detroit was going to win the series after that. Fans could tell instantly. As the Pistons routed the Sixers in Game 5, the station then known as Comcast SportsNet kept doing promotions for free tickets to Game 6. They literally had to give away playoff tickets. I emailed the address on the screen and won a pair of lower-level seats. But why did I even want those tickets? Detroit led 30-12 after the first quarter and won easily. The main thing I remember from that game is the Sixers struggling to get back into it; the kids next to us, who had also gotten free tickets, kept trying to come up with reasons to stay. “Only if the Pistons score here will we go!” one would yell, just as the Pistons scored and the trio continued to sit there. Repeat, until the end of the game.
It worked out for people who stayed, as the Sixers threw their gear into the crowd afterward. And that was appropriate. It was the beginning of the end for what I will call the Mo Cheeks/Andre Miller Sixers. (Okay, maybe that needs a better name.) They would sign Elton Brand to a big contract (“the Philly max”) in the offseason, which didn’t work out. It was clear, after the Pistons absolutely demolished the Sixers to end that series, that Mo Cheeks wasn’t going to lead the Post-Allen Iverson Sixers (the PAIS, for short) to contention. He’d be fired 23 games into the next season.
So, yeah. What if this is the end for this Sixers crew? Sure, the Sixers could’ve closed out this series in five games last night if they just held onto big leads. But they also could’ve been eliminated already if Shake Milton hadn’t played the best 14 minutes of his life last week. The Sixers have been chokers before: The team used the slogan “We Owe You One” after blowing a 2 games to 0 lead in the 1977 NBA Finals. They owed that debt for quite a while, and the slogan became infamous. In the end the Sixers won the title in 1983, and pretty much all was forgiven. These Sixers are good. They have built big leads because they are good. They could win the next two games, and go on to win the title. They could lose this next game, but recover a year wiser and win the title next season, or five years from now.
But what if they don’t? What if last night was the beginning of the end? What if Joel Embiid’s knees never get right, Ben Simmons continues to struggle to score, and Tobias Harris gets old? They’ve looked absolutely baffling on offense in the fourth quarter of consecutive games. Joel Embiid is hurt. Tobias Harris can’t score in the second half. Ben Simmons can’t score at all. He barely even had the ball last night. Nobody but Seth Curry can really even shoot. The bench is bad. The coach is… yeah. Doc Rivers led the Sixers to their best regular season in 20 years this season. I hope he won’t lead the team to its worst playoff exit in 44 as an encore.
Okay, that’s awfully dramatic. But this is how the Sixers have trained me. They won a title when I was four months old. I don’t remember that. Every other season in my lifetime has ended in a loss. What else should I expect for the future?