Game 1 is tomorrow in Miami (3:30 p.m., 6ABC).
The last time the Sixers reached the second round was 2003, Larry Brown's last season.
So, the right coach is in place. The young players continue to improve. One of the elder statesmen on the team, Elton Brand, found himself and his game again this season and was the Sixers' best player throughout the season. The other, Andre Iguodala, battled injury for the first time in his career, missing 15 games due to various injuries, and still seemed to be a conundrum at times.
Where do they go from here?
Following a regular-season-ending loss to Detroit on Wednesday night, Collins was basically asked that very question. He answered, sort of tersely, how the team unloaded veterans such as Willie Green, Sam Dalembert and Jason Smith just so the young players could get valuable playing time and so the organization could assess what it has. And still, the team won 14 more games than it did a year ago.
"You can't skip steps along the way," Collins said. "The only way you go from 27 wins to 50-something is if you get Tim Duncan or Larry Bird or David Robinson or Hakeem Olajuwon or somebody like that in the draft. You aren't going to make that big jump, especially if you look at how we made some trades so that our young guys would be able to play."
And that led them to 41 wins, and starting tomorrow, a playoff series against the most talked-about team in the league since the summer, the Miami Heat.
Many fans wanted the Sixers to repeat the record of a year ago, so as to get another high draft pick and continue the building process. But Collins knows that losing usually just breeds more losing. Winning, in his mind, is the only way to build from the ground up, and that is why every single drill he runs, every lesson he teaches, every proverb he quotes, is about becoming a better player or person.
"I've never, ever thought of losing to get a better draft pick or whatever," Collins said. "That is ridiculous to me. You don't learn to win by losing. We've won more games this year than many people expected us to. We're going to the playoffs and, like I've always said, you learn more about your team in a playoff series than you do during an 82-game season. Coaches in the playoffs go right after your weaknesses and they try to rip your heart out doing it. And that's good for a young team. A coach can tell them over and over again where they need to improve, but until they go out into a playoff series and see another coach go after what you've been preaching, they might not realize it."
Miami will certainly provide lessons, both to players and higher-ups.
"This is my fourth year here," said general manager Ed Stefanski. "The first 2 years we made the playoffs and the reaction was more like, 'Oh, yeah, they made the playoffs.' No one was really excited. People were looking for us to get higher in the draft. We lost both first-round series in six games and the [25-point] loss to Orlando [in 2009] left a bitter taste. Then we decided to let Andre Miller go and go with Jrue Holiday.
"This team is different from those teams in terms of age and experience. Our upside is bigger this year. We have more of a building block. This is a process, we know that. We know we need pieces."
The problem there is that the current collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight June 30. That has tied the hands of many GMs throughout the league as far as making moves without knowing about a salary cap and such. Once an agreement is reached, Stefanski expects to be busy.
"Once we figure out the rules and the guidelines of the new CBA, then we'll have a better idea of what we can do," Stefanski said. "We need to get bigger up front, add another scorer. But the big thing is the coach is in place. We know he is the guy. Mr. [Ed] Snider is willing to support us financially, and that is key going into free agency."
And this series, no matter the outcome, will be a big part in evaluating what will remain in place.
"Look, if a guy has a bad series it's not like we're going to ship him," Stefanski said. "But this is going to help the personnel department to get a real feel of what type of players you have. Some players adapt well to the playoff intensity, others don't. That's when you look and try to figure out if you have to make changes. Two years in the playoffs Thaddeus Young has been off the charts.
"It will be interesting to watch our three young starters in Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes. The three of them have never been in a playoff game. We need to go out and compete hard like we've been doing all season and see what this series gives us. It is great that this young team is there and they can feel what it's all about."
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