Just four days earlier, I had taken my final on sequences and series in calculus. I was still getting used to being back on Eastern time after spending three months in Evanston, Illinois, but that didn’t stop me from being in attendance for my one and only Sixers game of the highly anticipated 2019-20 season.
The Sixers were rolling with a record of 20-8, on pace to finish the season with just under 60 wins (given it would only be 60 wins in a normal, pandemic-less season). Sure, their road record of 6-8 was a tad concerning, and just three nights before they had been stomped by a Brooklyn Nets’ squad sans Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, but on December 18 they were playing the Miami Heat. An opponent they dominated 113-86 a month earlier. An opponent who had to play the mediocre and Meyers Leonard and the undersized Bam Adebayo at center to match up with Joel Embiid. Not to mention, the game was once again being played inside Wells Fargo Center. Up to that point, foes who entered the WFC had gone 0-for-14, and there was no reason to expect that wouldn’t hold true for a 15th occasion. Lucky me that this was the one night I got to see my heroes in person.
And through a quarter and a half of play, the actors had followed the script word-for-word. The Sixers opened up an 11-4 lead within the first four minutes of play, then kept the waters steady until the 7:28 mark of the second quarter, when the Heat took a timeout following a Furkan Korkmaz three that made the score 41-29, Philadelphia out in front. I was calm. Chilling. Having a good time, eating some fries and watching my Sixers cruise to their 21st win of the season. The Heat entered the game at 20-8, but the Sixers held the tiebreaker from their previous victory. The Celtics were 17-7, the Raptors 18-8, the Pacers 19-9. Save for the 24-4 Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers were just as good if not better than the rest of the contenders in the East, exactly where we expected them to be prior to the 2019-20 season.
Then this happened, and the season was never the same.
High school basketball is filled with 2-3 zones. They’re used less frequently in college ball, and until the 2001-02 season when the NBA nullified the illegal defense rule, they were impossible in the pro game (of course, teams like the ‘90s Sonics found ways to skirt around these restrictions). That’s all changed in the past few years. According to the incredible John Schumann of NBA.com, 18 of the 30 teams have played at least 100 possessions of zone defense through March 6, up from just 10 teams in an entire season two years ago in 2017-18. Weighing his options while trailing by 12, Erik Spolestra decided a 2-3 zone was worth a try as a wrinkle that could get his squad back in the game.
Boy did it ever.
By the 3:35 mark the Heat already had a 47-36 lead. By the end of the third, it had ballooned out an 82-74 advantage. With 7:59 left in the game, Philly trailed 96-80, having been outscored 67-39 in just under 24 minutes of game play. Being inside the building, the feeling wasn’t anger. It wasn’t outrage. It wasn’t even just the commonplace pain that many years of watching the Sixers have inflicted upon me.
The best I can describe it as was a feeling of ... malaise.
Possession after possession looked like the one above. The Sixers passed the ball around the perimeter, absolutely perplexed as to how to penetrate the two-point area, before throwing an errant entry inside that often resulted in a turnover. Defense wasn’t much better, as they surrendered several open looks to three-point demigod Duncan Robinson, and open rolls to the rim were present aplenty. The game slowly but surely slipped out of the Sixers’ grasp, and I just sat there with a sad plate of fries, sitting down the whole time, because I realized what my favorite team really was.
Watching the game you just kept hoping and hoping that it would click, that the Sixers would figure out the Miami zone and truly get back into the game, and this turned out to be a metaphor for the entire season. The fanbase and the NBA watching public at large continually waited all season for the switch to flip, for the Sixers to turn back into that menacing swath or arms and limbs that had the future champions staring at themselves and buying sympathy cookies after the game before a robot with the last name Leonard rescued them from their despair. But it just never clicked, and the season slipped away without harvesting any true satisfaction.
Even if the Sixers eventually clawed their way back and were an Al Horford missed three away from a tie game, that “comeback” was reminiscent of what we saw in the fourth and final game of the series sweep against the Celtics. At no point in the final period did I believe the Sixers were winning either of those games. If anything, the positive spurts were just a brutal reminder that this team possesses vast talent and athleticism, reminding us that they shouldn’t have been trailing in the first place.
The final score read 108-104 Miami, and the crowd soon exited in an unusually quiet manner. My fellow failings were just as flabbergasted as I was, knowing something was wrong with there team, only it was hard to put into tangible terms.
It was such a dull, dreary loss that I remember what happened outside the arena that night far more than the game I (re: my Dad, thanks by the way!) paid for that night. Some guy scratched my girlfriend’s car while we was trying to make a turn and just narrowly missed hitting me. We had a stop at a gas station to pump one of the tires. My younger brother talked way too much while sitting in the backseat, per usual. As for the game action, all I can envision when I close my eyes is the Horford miss and a couple of super deep threes from Robinson. Not what I was expecting heading into that night.
I wouldn’t be surprised if during this next week a lot of comparisons are made between the early 2010-2016 Oklahoma City Thunder and the Process Sixers. Both teams experienced greater success than most expected given their youth, then stalled due to some questionable front office decisions and bad injury luck before an embarrassing playoff defeat lead in one way or another to their demise.
There’s similarities for sure, but the Thunder’s journey was like getting into the best dorm on campus, having all the seniors tell you that you’re going to run the place in a couple of years, stagnating a bit because of some rough grades and money problems, but still having fun along the way till you drop out during the final quarter of your fourth year because you took three classes that you couldn’t pass and really liked to go downtown.
The Sixers’ experience from a fan’s perspective was like getting that awesome dorm, but your roommates are a little questionable and weird stories keep get thrown around like beanbags, but you’re still having just enough fun to convince yourself that it’s okay before everything goes to crap, the school expels your whole group our for vandalism, you don’t really get a job and basically wander the streets aimlessly for months before you get run over by a smart car while crossing the street. One journey was filled with ups and down and ended poorly. The other started with some ups, went spiraling in uncontrollable directions, then ended without any true ups ever again.
Most of the summer I suspected I was going to pick the Milwaukee Bucks to come out of the East, but foolishly, I convinced myself last minute that the Sixers were at least going to make it to the final two, playing for the ring we so desperately covet. I had already reverted back to the Bucks by that night, but seeing that loss in person made it definitive to me that the Sixers weren’t going anywhere that great.
The loss started a streak where Philadelphia went 5-8 one their next 13 games and 23-23 over the rest of the season, 23-27 including the playoffs.. A lot of things led to this tire fire of a season, but to me, the loss on December 18 was the complicating incident in the plot line of the Sixers’ miserable failure.
And all because I just had to show up.