The Sixers can't begin to think they've arrived

Posted: March 28, 2011

Now comes the hard part for the Sixers. Judging by Sunday's lame performance against the Sacramento Kings, they are not ready for it.

This team certainly has come a long way in its first season under Doug Collins. The journey from bad to good is tough enough in the NBA. But it is the next part, the transition game from good team to elite team, that is really difficult.

It is that much tougher when you think you're already there, as these young Sixers seem to believe. Maybe a bad loss at home to a dead team will snap them back to reality.

"We lost an edge, and we never got it back," Collins said. "Disappointing to me because I didn't feel the juice I normally feel from our group."

Collins went on to say he'd worried about the energy level for a noon game, letting slide the fact that it was 9 a.m. Sacramento time. The Kings didn't look all that energized, either. They just saw an opportunity in the Sixers' lack of focus and cashed in.

But then, Collins knows better than anyone how tough this next step is. He has been a head coach for three other NBA teams. He coached the Chicago Bulls for three of the early Michael Jordan seasons, getting them from 40 wins to 50 and then 47. Phil Jackson took over, won 55 games in 1989-90, and then won the first of six championships the next year.

In Detroit, Collins took the Pistons to 46 wins in his first season and 54 in the second. Both ended with first-round playoff losses and he was fired the next year with a 21-24 record. He didn't have much time or talent in Washington.

His results with these Sixers have been nearly magical, and he is the only reasonable candidate for coach of the year honors. He took over a mess and he fielded a respectable NBA team that has begun to ignite some real interest in this tough-to-impress sports town. Attendance for a Sunday noon tipoff against a nothing opponent was 16,235.

It was a perfect opportunity for this team to live up to its burgeoning reputation. Sandwiched between tough road games against the Miami Heat (Friday) and Chicago Bulls (Monday), it was more than that. It was a needed win.

And the Sixers managed to lose it three different ways. They blew an early 11-point lead, they blew a five-point lead with two minutes left in regulation, and they lost the overtime period forced by Lou Williams' three-pointer at the buzzer.

"This was not a good day," Collins said.

The coach didn't emerge for his postgame news conference for nearly a half hour, allowing most of his players to get out of the locker room before those awful reporter types came in and asked about the defensive miscues and sloppy ballhandling. Only veterans Williams and Elton Brand were around to discuss the game.

Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe Collins thought it best to herd his young players onto the charter to Chicago without having his own message diluted. In the third quarter, after a couple of loose balls - hustle plays - went to Sacramento, Collins took his young guards, Jrue Holiday and Jodie Meeks, out of the game.

"It was really the intangibles," Brand said, "like getting loose balls. It's five loose balls at the beginning of the third quarter. They got two of them for three-point plays. We wanted to jump on those balls and have that energy. We looked at them as a Sacramento team that we beat handily at their place by 30-plus points, but that's not this team."

Ah, but it is. Collins also sang the praises of the mighty Kings, who are playing without the burden of a looming playoff run. Loose teams can be dangerous. Good teams take care of such teams, especially at home. And teams with pretensions to being better than good don't let such teams up after getting 11-point leads.

So it was a bad loss. But as a slap in the face, maybe it will serve Collins well as a teaching moment. It was telling that he cut off one question in his news conference, and it was one about whether a loss like this can affect his team's confidence.

"I don't worry about that," Collins said quickly, as if trying to wave the whole concept of doubt out of the air. "We've played 73 games. We've been through some tough losses and you can see we've bounced back."

It takes more than that as the playoffs approach, though. Brand talked about wanting to go into the postseason strong, not merely backing in and being happy to be there. That's the way the really good teams think.

This team hasn't arrived at that level. Not yet. It proved that much Sunday.

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