The Philadelphia 76ers battle for their playoff lives

Since beating the New York Knicks 104-96 on March 11, the Sixers have won just four of 14 games. On March 11, the Sixers still had a hold on first-place in the Atlantic Division.

A month later the Sixers have been passed in the Atlantic by not only the Boston Celtics, but also the Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks and find themselves treading water at 29-27 in eight in the East with just a one-game over the Milwaukee Bucks for the final playoff spot.

Talk about a fall from grace. The Sixers were, at one point, 20-9 and looking like a threat to run away with the teams first division title since 2000-2001, when Allen Iverson led the team to the NBA Finals.

But as quickly as the Sixers’ rise gained attention, it just as quickly fell thanks to a tougher schedule and struggles on both sides of the ball. Philadelphia’s vaunted league-best scoring defense came back down to earth thanks to visits from Boston, San Antonio, Chicago, and Indiana during their most recent swoon, which comes after a five-game losing streak in the end of February. Mix in some humbling defeats from some obviously better teams, the Sixers also sprinkled in some awful performances against teams that they should have beat. Those include a 21-point spanking in Washington to the 12-44 Wizards and another 21-point loss at home to the 20-35 Toronto Raptors.

Yikes.

Since being 20-9 on February 13, the Sixers have gone 9-18; going from third-place in the East to eighth, putting their playoff hopes in serious┬ájeopardy. The fall has coach Doug Collins searching for answers and fans getting restless. But in retrospect was the Sixers’ model for success flawed from the very beginning?

In Boston, the big three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have the aging Celtics looking like a tough out in the playoffs while New York’s Carmelo Anthony has put the team directly on his back heading past the Sixers and up the Eastern playoff picture. The Sixers reliance on team scoring rather than a go-to option has led to a stagnant offensive that relies too heavily on the transition game to get easy buckets. Then when the game gets close in the fourth, everyone on the court stares at eachother wondering who’ll get the next shot.

But to get back to their winning ways, the Sixers need to step up on the defensive side of the ball. Over their last 14 games, Philadelphia has given up 95+ points five times (four losses). On the season, the Sixers still rank first in scoring defense at 88 points per game, but with the offensive struggles (92.9 points per game), the Sixers need to play suffocating defense in order to have a chance in any game.

That suffocating defense (Lock all windows and doors as Marc Zumoff would say) needs to start at New Jersey on Tuesday night and continue for the nine games after that to end the season. If it doesn’t, the Sixers will be wondering how a 20-9 start ended with an early off-season.

It shouldn’t be that hard of a stretch for the Sixers to hold onto a playoff spot, however. Of their final 10 games, just four are against teams with winning or .500 records (Orlando, Indiana twice, Milwaukee). Of the rest of the six games, three are against the 21-37 New Jersey Nets with road trips to Toronto, Cleveland and Detroit before the end of the 66-game schedule. The only problem is that the Sixers’ last five games are on the road, where they’re just 10-15 on the season.

With 10 games left, it’s do or die for the Philadelphia 76ers, and nobody wants to see a good story go down the tubes.