So here’s how it works in sportswriting: Often, you gather strings. That’s an expression in the business. To gather string means to report over time about a particular topic or a potential outcome or event. You research. You talk to sources. You gain facts and context and insight in the hope of informing your reporting and storytelling and opinions.
You can gather string about a trend that’s developing, and you can gather string for a profile piece, and you can gather string about something that might happen. A player is on track to set a record. A team is approaching a milestone. A coach looks like a lame duck and could get fired. You want to be ready, just in case. So you gather string, even if you never end up weaving it into anything you write.
The three days between the 76ers’ Game 5 loss Monday to the Raptors and their 132-97 victory Thursday night in Game 6 provided a great opportunity to gather string, especially about one topic: the prospect of a Sixers collapse. They had led the series three games to none, and no NBA team had ever lost a series after leading three games to none, but now they led three games to two, and no NBA coach had lost more series after leading three games to one than Doc Rivershad.
The thought that the Sixers might lose Game 6, and the entire series, passed through the mind of everyone who covers or follows them. It was time to get to gathering, and as it turned out, in light of the Sixers’ clinching win Thursday and their upcoming series against the Heat, the string was pretty timely and relevant.
First call: Gordie Chiesa. Longtime assistant coach with the Utah Jazz under Jerry Sloan. Why call Church? Because the 1993-94 Jazz had a 3-0 lead in their Western Conference semifinals matchup against the Denver Nuggets, and the Nuggets came back to tie the series before the Jazz won Game 7. That Utah team had been where these Sixers were. What was it like? How did the Jazz right themselves?
Church broke it all down. The Jazz had Karl Malone and John Stockton and Jeff Hornacek, a strong veteran core. The Nuggets had a pretty young, inexperienced team. But they had pulled off a dramatic upset in their previous series, beating the Seattle Supersonics (when the first round was still a best-of-five) in five games after losing the first two. Their center was Dikembe Mutombo, and Denver had changed the momentum in both the Seattle series and the Utah series, Chiesa said, through Mutombo’s “insane shot-blocking.” The Jazz needed to do something to counteract it, physically and psychologically.
“Before Game 7,” Chiesa said, “Karl Malone didn’t say a word to anyone for a day-and-a-half. He was getting ready to play mentally. There was nothing we could say as coaches that he didn’t know. And he played absolutely great. I’ve dunked over Mutombo’s noggin. Shot-faked and went over him. He took the game over. The momentum changed.”
Malone had 31 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists in Game 7. Utah won, 91-81.
“Confidence and momentum are allies,” Chiesa said. “If the ball moves, the scoreboard moves. If the ball sticks, the scoreboard sticks. Star players can tend to overdrbble; there’s so much pressure on them. They know it’s on them. They have good intentions. But they overdribble. In a playoff series, you’ve got to pop that ball around the perimeter. It keeps everybody loose and more engaged.”
Thursday night, Joel Embiid had his best game of the series: 33 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks. (He also suffered a broken orbital bone and a concussion. We’ll get to that later.) James Harden had his best game of the series: 22 points, 15 assists. All five Sixers starters scored in double figures. The ball was moving. Afterward, Rivers told reporters that he ended Thursday’s shootaround early because he could tell the players were fully engaged, sharp, prepared. There was nothing he as a coach could say that they didn’t already know.
Second call: ESPN’s public-relations department. ESPN could put me in touch with LaPhonso Ellis, who analyzes men’s college basketball for the network. And Ellis, a key member of the 1993-94 Nuggets, could put me in the locker room of an eighth-seeded team that knocked off the top-seeded Sonics, then almost knocked off Stockton, Malone, and the Jazz.
“Utah, those guys were poised,” Ellis said. “You never sensed an air of arrogance. On the other hand, I can’t say the same for [Seattle’s] Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, that group.”
At home for the series’ first two games, the Sonics won both, though their margin of victory in Game 2 was just 10 points. “That made us confident,” Ellis said, “we could come home and win two.” They did, and for Game 5, the atmosphere inside the Seattle Center Coliseum was different than it had been earlier. It wasn’t as loud, and there was a palpable feeling of nervousness.
“Even the fans who were so raucous and rowdy, they were really really quiet,” Ellis said. “We watched as the Sonics would go into timeouts, and they were arguing with each other. That’s another aspect of the game within the game. You didn’t sense Utah was rattled. That was the maturity of their stars compared to Seattle’s stars.”
Now, the Heat are the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, and they have a team that is talented and regarded as tough-minded: Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo, others. They’re favored to beat the Sixers, and they should be.
Given that Embiid is injured and his availability is an open question, it would be surprising if Miami didn’t win the series. But when things go wrong for them, the Heat also can be a late … fuel. As this series progresses, if the Sixers gain any kind of edge, it’s worth keeping that history in mind and considering how it might manifest itself again. It might even be worth gathering some string on it.