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Wrong About Everything
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You are forgiven if, having slogged through this interminable season with the 76ers, you don't see the point of making the playoffs as the last seed in the Eastern Conference.

Finishing eighth means a first-round date with the Detroit Pistons, who try very hard not to laugh at the prospect. Finishing seventh (yeah, right) means a full dose of Shaq and Dwyane Wade or, possibly, only the hottest team in the league, the New Jersey Nets, who haven't lost in almost a month.

The Sixers didn't appear to care much about their fate Tuesday night in Cleveland, getting chumped by the Cavaliers.

Last night, the fight was better, but it came way too late, after the Sixers had made it easy for Chicago to score in the first quarter. Coach Maurice Cheeks said afterward that that was due to the Bulls' hitting jump shots; it also was due to not rotating, or rebounding.

And there are no moral victories this time of year; after losing 99-92 to the Bulls, the Sixers are officially on the outside looking in, 34-40, a half-game behind surging Chicago.

You may say "good."

You'd be wrong.

Not because I expect some kind of first-round miracle against the Pistons or Heat or Nets. There won't be any.

But because you can never give in to losing. Never.

Once losing becomes acceptable, you are done.

"I'd rather go to the playoffs than not go, even with a losing record," Allen Iverson said afterward. "Because once you get there, you never know. It's a series. I mean, I know it's tough when an eight seed plays against a one seed, because not only do the media and everybody else think you don't have a chance, but a lot of times, to me - and I hope I don't get in a whole lot of trouble for this - I think sometimes the referees feel like we're undermanned, and you just don't get that respect out there."

He's right. About the media, the referees, all of it. Because that's what you expect of a losing team. Once branded a loser, a team finds it an awful tough label to shake. Once you start looking forward to the lottery instead of the postseason, you've rounded a corner that's hard to circumnavigate.

Isn't this the city that grinds its collective teeth into paste every October because the Phillies don't make the playoffs? Isn't this the town where if you can't win the game, at least win the fight?

These are dangerous times for this franchise. We all know a transition into the post-Iverson era is coming soon, whether it's this summer or next February at the trading deadline or in the summer of '07. But what happens to this team then, when it's officially rebuilding?

That's why you always win as much as you can when you can.

Ask the Clippers, whose general manager, Elgin Baylor, can fly to France free for life with all the miles he's accumulated going from Los Angeles to Secaucus, N.J., for the lottery over the years.

The Clippers started improving not through the draft, but when they got Elton Brand from the Bulls in a trade five years ago. It's taken them that long to surround him with enough good parts to - finally - get to the playoffs this season.

For the first time in 12 years.

Ask the Bulls, who thought it would be easy to rebound from the end of the Michael Jordan era. A couple of draft picks, plenty of cap room, we'll have this rebuilt in a jiffy.

They were the worst team in the league for six consecutive years.

It took five more drafts for them to get enough good players to make the postseason last year. So Bulls coach Scott Skiles isn't thinking about the millions in salary cap room or what having the Knicks' first-round pick this summer might mean in the future.

"We want in," Skiles said before the game. "All of our young guys, those experiences, a coach can explain to you what it's all about, playing in the playoffs and all that. But until you get in and go through it, talking really doesn't mean anything. So we think it's important for our guys' development to go through those situations."

You may say, wait a minute, the Sixers are different. Allen Iverson and Chris Webber and Kevin Ollie have been in a hundred playoffs over the years. They can't learn anything new.

Maybe. But Andre Iguodala and Kyle Korver (who made a great defensive effort last night, blocking shots, taking charges, stepping in passing lanes) and Samuel Dalembert need all the postseason experience they can get. One year isn't enough. Two years aren't enough.

The urgency that Iverson said afterward some of his younger teammates may lack comes out best in the heat of the postseason, when everyone's on edge. These kids have to get as many tastes from the playoff bottle as they can.

Yes, they'd probably get slapped around by Detroit or Miami or Jersey. But there isn't a champion in this league over the last two decades that didn't get kicked in the teeth early in his playoff career.

The champions were the ones who got up and fought some more.
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