After sprinting out to an 18-7 record and seemingly proving they were for real with a five-point victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in early February, the Sixers have lost 16 of their last 26 games and on Friday were overtaken in the Atlantic Division standings by the Celtics.
The Sixers' difficulties were not entirely unexpected, though. Part of their troubles — the biggest part, in all likelihood — was their level of competition, which ramped up drastically after those first 25 games.
Philadelphia's first 15 losses following the Lakers game were to teams in playoff contention, and four of the five defeats in a damaging five-game losing streak came on the road. Even with all the Celtics' improvements since a 4-8 start to the season, the Sixers might have been able to tread water and maintain their lead in the standings as long as they continued to beat the teams they should beat.
Then came Friday's 97-76 loss to the Washington Wizards, and it was hard to make any more excuses for the Sixers.
The Wizards are not the Spurs, Bulls, Heat, Pacers or even the Knicks, the last five teams to defeat the Sixers before Friday. The Wizards would be the worst team in basketball if not for the existence of the Charlotte Bobcats, and the Bobcats' existence is mostly a mere rumor. (Sure, there are photographs that appear to show guys named "Tyrus Thomas" and "Bismack Biyombo" playing basketball, but there are also picture postcards of jackalopes and those do not exist — probably.)
Losing to the 12-39 Wizards after two days of rest would qualify as a bad loss under any circumstances, but it looked especially bad in contrast to the Celtics' fourth straight win. It may be true that the Celtics, who have been blown out twice in Philadelphia, cannot beat the Sixers. But that might also be irrelevant. It would take a miracle and an epic collapse for the Celtics and Sixers teams to meet in the first round of the playoffs, and at the moment the Sixers do not look like a team that can make it out of an extended series with any Eastern Conference team.
The Celtics, meanwhile, have manhandled two playoff hopefuls, the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves, in consecutive games. They have feasted on a relatively stale slate since the All-Star break but had to survive an eight-game road trip as well. Their next seven games would make the Sixers' recent competition look like the Little East Conference: Heat, Spurs, Bulls, Pacers, 76ers, Heat again and Hawks, beginning Sunday with Miami visiting the TD Garden.
Prior to Friday's game, it was easy to envision the Sixers taking care of their own business in the coming weeks and moving back into the division lead while the Celtics struggled. That still could be the case, but after a 21-point loss a haphazard opponent, the signs suggest it will not be.
It won't be easy being green, but it might be better than being red, white and blue.