The Sixers Just Aren’t Good Enough

No matter how much the Philly media hypes their chances against the Heat

You have to give the media in Philadelphia credit. Whenever a local professional team squares off against someone in a playoff series, it can count on tremendous support from the fourth estate.

Take the Daily News, which ran the clever but hardly objective photo of the Miami Heat’s trio of stars dressed as Larry, Moe and Curly, accompanied by the headline, “The Big 3 Stooges.” Below it came the cheerleading declaration: “Overhyped Heat Trio First Up For Sixers – Bring ‘Em On!” No one can expect a tabloid like the Daily News to run headlines like “Sixers, Heat Meet In First-Round Series,” but cranking up Photoshop and waving the red-white-and-blue pom-poms to curry favor with fans is a little much. The technique may be as old as the “yellow journalism” newspaper wars of the 1890s but it doesn’t necessarily jibe with the paper’s more muted coverage of the team during the regular season.

The Daily News isn’t alone, of course. Any writer, commentator, talk-show host or TV talking head who dares go against the locals is viewed as a “hater” or is somehow considered disloyal. Their predictions are often cited as motivational fodder for players, who yearn to “shock the world” by staging an upset. So, the local press climbs aboard the bandwagon. Radio stations that spend entire seasons fricasseeing a team will set up tents outside stadiums come the post-season and try to co-opt a squad’s popularity. And newspapers will ridicule other cities’ histories and cultures to fan the rivalry and celebrate Philadelphia’s greatness.

So, after largely ignoring the Sixers throughout the regular season, even though their 41-41 record represented a 15-win improvement from a desultory ’09-10 performance, the city has discovered the team in time for the first-round showdown with the Heat and their “Stooges.” Trouble is, it’s going to be an awful short love affair, because while Saturday afternoon’s meeting between the teams was closer than many national analysts thought, it represented the chasm between the two teams and the yawning gap between these Sixers -– no matter how hard-working and well-intentioned they may be -– and the NBA’s best.

Even though the NBA tries to make its playoffs seem like a tournament in which anything can happen, the opening round is largely a long bit of athletic foreplay before the league’s best teams go about the business of deciding a champion. Oh, there are occasional upsets, like Denver over top-seeded Seattle in 1994 and Golden State over Dallas in 2007, but for the most part, the cream rises. And this year, the Sixers aren’t the cream. They are barely skim milk.

This isn’t “hating” or an attempt to denigrate the team’s accomplishments this year. The Sixers had a fine season. But they aren’t in the Heat’s league, and no matter how much we want to dislike Miami’s “Big Three” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, sheer animus can’t make up the gigantic talent disparity between the two teams.

It’s tempting to blame the whole thing on Andre Iguodala, since he is the easy metaphor for the Sixers’ second-class status within the Eastern Conference. Since Iguodala is not a star, and James and Wade are, the Sixers have no chance. It’s not that simple. Sure, Iguodala continues to prove himself a second banana, but a lot of people are when compared to Wade and James. The Sixers lack front-line performers at the two guard and the middle, and their better players (Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and Elton Brand) are not superstar caliber. Holiday may get there some day, but the others will not.

Further, the Sixers are so young as a team that when it comes time to win close games against teams like the Heat, they are as overmatched as the English language is during a taping of “Jersey Shore.” The NBA playoffs usually contain several games that are 46 minutes of fluff and two minutes of winning time. Saturday, we saw that in full evidence. With 1:51 to go and the Sixers down 90-87, Elton Brand missed the kind of 15-footer that has been his specialty since entering the league. Wade, meanwhile, hit a big-time layup and a pair of free throws to secure the victory. He has a sparkling championship ring. The Sixers right now wear CZ.

There is a chance the Sixers might win a game in this series. Might. One. But since this isn’t the NC2A tourney, where Morehead State beats Louisville, and George Mason tops Villanova, that one won’t be enough. Saturday’s near-miss was valiant. It was fun to watch. It was also all the evidence fans need to see just how far the Sixers still have to go. Unfortunately, unlike a college team that can revel in the return of its starters next season and predict big things as they grow and mature, the Sixers have big needs beyond the accumulation of experience, if they want to contend for a championship.

It’s fun to root against the Heat and call its best players names. But that only goes so far. Miami is the much better team, and no amount of fancy, computer-generated taunting can overcome that. The clock on the Sixers’ season is ticking more loudly every minute, courtesy of the NBA’s harsh playoff reality. That’s not meant to be disrespectful, just accurate. A week or so from now, the “Stooges” will be on to the second stage of their championship quest, while the Sixers will be facing an off-season of labor uncertainty, access to a horrible draft class and little hope of attracting a good free agent.

Let’s see how many media cheerleaders are around for all of that.

* A goalie carousel is no way to go through the playoffs. Flyers’ coach Peter Laviolette should start Sergei Bobrovsky game three in Buffalo but make sure Brian Boucher is ready at a moment’s notice. Continuity is important, but performance is vital. Bob, you’re on notice.

* Joe Blanton says his problem is mechanical. Pitching coach Rich Dubee wonders about that. I say Blanton gets two more starts, and if he still can’t get through the fifth inning, he contracts an unfortunate –- and hard to diagnose -– soft-tissue injury, and Kyle Kendrick gets the fifth starter’s spot.

* Villanova’s institutional hand-wringing over the decision to move up to the big time for football has given the Big East enough time to consider whether it wants to add a team with an 18,000-seat stadium and a conflicted university community, particularly when the league appears vulnerable to bigger conferences still looking to expand. What looked like a done deal two months ago is now in huge jeopardy. Word to the wise: When the invitation comes, accept it.