A couple of months ago, 76ers coach Jim O'Brien spoke of the need for his team to finish with a .500 record because, in his opinion, it would mean a spot in the NBA playoffs.
Yesterday, with the .500 mark still as elusive to the Sixers as the definition for the meaning of life, O'Brien stuck to that belief.
"That's what I think," he said after practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "You have to finish .500 to make the playoffs, or be in a position to be in the playoffs. I'll stick with that."
Here's the math: The Sixers must go 5-4 in their remaining nine games to wind up 41-41. Their two closest pursuers for the coveted No. 8 spot in the East - Orlando and New Jersey - will have to finish 6-3 and 6-2, respectively, to get to .500.
The Sixers certainly would be wise to aim at a record higher than .500. Starting with tonight's game against the Charlotte Bobcats at the Wachovia Center, six of their last nine are at home. All six involve Eastern Conference opponents, against whom they are 16-4 on their home court.
Then again, in this season of maddening inconsistency, the Sixers probably would be ecstatic with a .500 mark.
"We've got to keep on winning," Kyle Korver said. "Obviously, I haven't been in this situation before, but it doesn't take a brain scientist to figure it out. We've just got to keep on winning. We've got to win more than Orlando and New Jersey."
Of course, the Sixers could aim really high and take a shot at first place in the Atlantic Division. The Boston Celtics hold a 31/2-game lead with eight to play, but the Sixers will get one more shot at them while holding a 3-0 advantage in the season series.
The Celtics will play seven different teams in their last eight games and are 7-10 against those clubs. The Sixers, who take on nine different opponents, are 18-6 against those teams.
Finishing first in the Atlantic Division would earn the Sixers a No. 3 seed. Barring that, it is doubtful they will finish any higher than an eighth seed, given that Indiana, which started last night's contests as the sixth seed, and No. 7 Cleveland were 21/2 games ahead of them.
That would require a lot of help for the Sixers to move out of eighth and thereby avoid a matchup with Shaquille O'Neal and the Miami Heat. So there will be some scoreboard watching, but not too much.
"It's a fun time of year," O'Brien said. "We know where everyone is and when they're playing and who they're playing and how important each game is. But most importantly, we realize how important our games are. You can have fun watching the other teams, but we understand we have to take care of our own business."
On paper, the Pacers look vulnerable. They are missing three starters: Jermaine O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley (both injured) and Ron Artest (suspended). But they were on a three-game winning streak going into last night.
The Cavaliers have struggled on the road, where they are 11-24. They will play six of their last nine games away from Gund Arena. But LeBron James has carried the team on his back lately, and that doesn't look likely to change.
Of course, comparing schedules and watching scoreboards is all well and good. But what the Sixers need to do is find the key to consistency that has eluded them in 73 games, including the 20 since their Feb. 23 mega-deal that netted all-star forward Chris Webber.
The lack of consistency follows them from game to game or, in the case of Sunday's win in Boston, quarter to quarter. The Sixers raced to a 25-point lead in the first 12 minutes against the Celtics, then were outscored by 22 points in the next two periods.
The Sixers have not achieved a winning streak of higher than three games this season.
"We can't make up excuses, with different guys coming in and whatnot," Korver said. "But it's just an effort thing. We've got to stay focused. We've got less than three weeks left, and it's a matter of going out there and doing it. I don't want to say anything for why we've been inconsistent. We've just got to go out there and play."
Another factor down the stretch will be the health of Webber, their leading rebounder. Webber missed the last two games with a sprained left shoulder, but he did some shooting at yesterday's practice and said he could play tonight.
"I had a couple of good days of rehab, but we'll see how it goes," he said. "I've got to listen to my body, so hopefully it will be good."
As far as playoff chances go, Webber said it's a matter of the Sixers putting it all together.
"I see us being in a good position now," he said. "I see us being, not in control of our destiny, but I see us at least being in [the playoffs] right now. We know that, going into every game, we have a chance either to gain ground or lose ground. So I like our chances and feel that we're playoff-bound."
For O'Brien, the final nine games will be like the playoffs, with the Sixers needing to rachet up the focus and intensity.
"We had talked before the Boston game about just playing loose and as aggressive as you possibly can at both ends of the court," he said.
"We control where we're going to finish this year. Our guys are aware of that. Because it means so much to what we're doing, we have to get after it at a very high and intense level all the time, every possession."