Collins: Win or (more likely) lose, Sixers' gain in playoff series with Heat

Miami's LeBron James dunks over the Sixers' Andre Iguodala in a March game. James will present defensive problems.
Miami's LeBron James dunks over the Sixers' Andre Iguodala in a March game. James will present defensive problems.
Posted: April 16, 2011

Doug Collins can talk until the players' ears are bleeding - and has been known to do just that - but there is nothing he can say to get the 76ers really ready for what begins Saturday in the first round of the NBA postseason.

"I wish they could learn from my mistakes, but they've got to learn from their own." Collins said after practice Friday, just before the team boarded a plane to Miami. "They've got to go through it themselves."

What they are about to go through - an opening-round playoff series against the Heat - might not be pretty at times. Unless something unexpected takes place, the Sixers will lose the series decisively. Collins will be living and dying with every possession, because that's how he coaches, but he also knows that nothing about the experience can actually be bad.

"You couldn't pay for this. I told [Ed] Snider that what we're about to do, you couldn't write a check worth what this will mean to the value of the franchise," Collins said. "If we were an older team and got beat in the first round, you could say the season didn't mean anything. But we're young. We've got seven or eight nice pieces who can continue to grow. People can be cynical and say, 'Aw, you're just getting beat in the first round.' But this experience is important for us. This is a core group of guys who are growing up."

There already has been a surprising amount of growth this season, adding 14 wins from last season's total and fighting back from a 3-13 start. It is one of those sum-of-the-parts teams that doesn't really have a towering leader, but enough complementary components and enough desire to play above its head.

All of which is fine in the regular season, but that's not the top of the ladder. Now the rungs get steeper and farther apart.

"Chemistry's a wonderful thing, but at the end of the day, you've got to have talent," Collins said. "Miami has come together, and this is what they've been waiting for. The teams that are playing for championships, they couldn't wait for April 16. They've been bored for three months. Teams like us, the little engines that could, we've been trying to get up that hill. We've been fighting for our lives."

The Sixers got up the hill and over it into the playoffs. Now they face a downhill plunge without brakes, a ride in which the scenery will spin past like a pinwheel.

What would be a successful series? That's an answer that might require some long-range perspective, and the payoff might not arrive until another series in another season when the lessons finally are put to use.

"Everything that we're going to be able to do under pressure against incredibly talented players will give us an idea of what we have to do from here," Collins said. "To go from 27 [wins] to 41 wins is a great jump. But the hardest jump is to go from 41 to 50. I told the guys they made a great jump this year, now let's see how we're going to play against the Miami Heat."

Well, it's going to present some problems, and the biggest of those is how the Sixers intend to score. Focusing on the offensive skills of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is misleading. The Heat will score their points. What makes them a championship contender? They play very good defense and they play it in a way that matches up poorly for the Sixers.

In the half-court offense, the Sixers rely heavily on pick-and-roll, screen-and-roll basics, and the Heat defenders - all quickness, arms, and athleticism - eat that for lunch. The Sixers will have to try some other things and they'll have to shoot a high percentage from the field. More important, they will have to defend well themselves, get turnovers and rebounds, and take the ball the other way for a score without having to use their balky half-court game as much.

It sounds good in a scouting report, but pulling it off is another thing. The defensive matchups aren't very favorable to the Sixers. When Miami goes to its smaller lineup, moving James to power forward, who's going to guard him? Not Elton Brand. Maybe Thaddeus Young, but not for long. It has to still be Andre Iguodala, and that means that Brand and Young probably can't be on the court at the same time, and that the perimeter defense is going to be manned by some of their less capable defenders. Oh, and, by the way, who's going to step up and provide the offense?

"If you look at it, Miami has 75 to 80 points in the bank before the game starts," Collins said. "We've got to find out how we can score."

That's because the Sixers don't have much in their initial bank account. Every point will have to be earned. That's fine for the long haul, and they will emerge a better team for the experience of playing the Heat. In the short term, however, it sometimes will be hard to remember that this is all for the best.


Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://www.philly.com/

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