Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Dirk Nowitzki, Deron Williams, Steve Nash. The number of superstars sitting at home on their couches watching while the Philadelphia 76ers are getting ready to play the biggest game of their careers is growing. There are plenty of people who cover this sport for a living - and plenty who follow the team - who will tell you every one of the 25 teams which have been eliminated from contention are in a more desirable position than the Sixers in terms of talent and/or future outlook. When they take the floor tomorrow night at 8pm, they'll probably continue to be the butt of jokes for talking heads, they'll be overlooked as analysts make predictions for the inevitable Boston/Miami Eastern Conference Finals, they'll be buried and left for dead before the opening tip, they might be labelled as the worst team still standing. But guess what, they are still standing and they have at least another 48 minutes to leave their mark on the 2011-2012 season.
Boston has all the experience. They've got an extra day's rest to heal their old bodies and recharge their batteries. They've got their home crowd to provide the energy and they've got the ultimate trump card, home town calls from the refs, in their back pocket. Game seven is the reason you fight all year long for home court advantage, an advantage the Sixers squandered with horrid play over the second half of the season. It's going to be the worst kind of uphill battle. Luckily, battling is this team's specialty.
The white boards in each team's locker room might as well be written in permanent ink at this point. This game will be their 10th meeting in the past three months. There won't be any surprises when they take the floor. On paper, the Celtics still have a big advantage up front, while the Sixers athleticism is their biggest strength. Boston's roster is top heavy, while the Sixers have depth. Both teams are capable of suffocating defense. The Celtics have a couple of guys who will get the superstar whistles, the Sixers do not. The Celtics don't have anyone who can stop penetration on the perimeter, nor enough big bodies to clog the paint and challenge shots without fouling. Whichever team will be able to exploit the other team's weakness and press their own advantage will probably come out on top.
There's a whole lot more riding on this game than your average game seven. The Celtics put together this dream team with the promise of winning championships, multiple. They got the job done in their first season together, they've fallen short every year since and this might be their last shot. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are both unrestricted free agents this summer. Even if the big three is kept together, they might just have too many miles on the odometer. The Sixers don't have to worry about retirement, but they might have to worry about a dismantling of sorts. No matter what happens on Saturday and beyond, the Sixers will not return the same roster to start the 2012-2013 season. Some of the guys we've been following for years will be wearing a different uniform, and the core of this team could see significant changes.
There's a thin line between desperation and determination, and the Sixers might just need a little bit of both to pull off this upset. They could probably lose this game and consider their season a success. Most would discount their postseason run because they beat a depleted Bulls team in the first round and couldn't take down a geriatric Celtics squad in the second round. Lose this game and they leave questions unanswered. They leave the door open to completely tearing the team apart this summer. They probably warrant a few paragraphs in the local papers about how they beat the odds for a little while, but ultimately everyone knew it would end like this and there's nothing to be excited about in the future.
But it doesn't have to end that way. It doesn't have to end with a predictable loss to the Celtics and an immediate plunge into the depths of the Sixers' hopeless outlook as currently constructed. The ride doesn't have to end. The Sixers can step on that floor and grind out one more win. They can earn the right to play in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. The same Miami Heat who knocked them out in the first round last season. They can earn the right to show the Heat how much has changed in the past year, how all the excruciating losses have hardened them. Made them immune to pressure situations. They can play this game for each other, they can play it as the group of guys who got together during the lockout and ran their offense, honed their defense and then went to battle this year, aware of their limitations, but confident in each other. They can go out there, win this game, and send a message to the superstars, their super teams, the front office and every prognosticator who buried them before the playoffs even began. Most importantly, win this game and they'll send a message to the city that's started to believe. The city that sold out the past six playoff games and had the Wells Fargo Center rocking for game six.
It doesn't have to end tomorrow night. Not only the season, but this era of Sixers basketball. It's time to take the Atlantic Division torch from the Celtics, bury the big three and then set your sites on the super friends in the ECF. You've still got more to prove in this league that promotes players over teams. You can't do that if you don't win this game.
I'll leave you with one final quote, from Elton Brand. "Sometimes Dre, sometimes Lou, sometimes Thad ... All the time us."