Doug Collins pointed it out after the Heat ran through the Sixers in Game 2. When Miami is playing at its best, the Heat are the superior team. Even when Miami is playing only at 70 percent, the Heat are the better team. The Sixers are a group of mostly young, athletic players on the upswing of their careers. But they are a team with significant holes, the most obvious one being the lack of a superstar. The Heat have three. The Sixers have zero.
But even if the Sixers get swept, which is a distinct possibility, this series will not have been a waste. It has been an invaluable step in the restoration of the Sixers franchise, one Collins had hoped the franchise would make this season but one that was somewhat of a surprise after the team started the season 3-13.
Collins wanted to take the Sixers to the playoffs in his first year so that his message of playing hard, playing aggressively, playing as a team did not fall on deaf ears. It was important, Collins thought, that after all the coaches who have cycled through here since Larry Brown left in 2003, Collins could say, "See, you did what I asked, and we went to the playoffs."
Now, Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, and Lou Williams know what Collins means when he talks about the "second season." They understand what it feels like to play in the postseason, how the intensity really does increase, how a seven-game series has ebbs and flows and is about strategy and adjustments and matchups and countering the opponent's punch.
This is all experience in the bank, even if the result turns out to be not what the Sixers wanted.
"Do I want to win the games? Absolutely," Collins said on Wednesday. "Nobody competes more than I do. But the growth of these young guys and the franchise, that's what we're looking at. I just, right now standing here, I know that the seeds have been laid, the culture's been laid for this franchise to become an elite franchise. Now we've got to grow up, and this is helping us grow up, and I hope we grow up by winning the game on Thursday."
That is the goal, but whether the team wins or loses is not going to adversely affect the franchise's trajectory. For the first time in a long time, the team is going in the right direction. The Sixers finished 41-41 this season. The early goal for next season - if there is a next season - is 50 wins, which would be a significant jump. The next step is to win a first-round playoff series. After that, compete for a conference championship, and then an NBA championship.
Collins knows that the team has reached a point where it must build through addition. Sometimes, teams can improve by getting rid of certain players. Collins said the Sixers are at a point where they need to add pieces. It has been clear through this playoff series that the Sixers need a competent, reliable big man. They also need a three-point shooter and another scorer.
Ed Snider, the ultimate keeper of the wallet, understands this, too.
"We're heading in the right direction," said Snider, who made a rare appearance at the Sixers practice on Wednesday before taking a private plane to Buffalo for the Flyers' Game 4 against the Sabres. "We know what our needs are and how we're going to try to get them. Right now, I don't want to talk about that.
"But, we've got a good staff, good people. Rod Thorn and Ed Stefanski and Tony DiLeo and these guys, they know what they're doing, coupled with Doug doing the coaching, I'm really thrilled with it."
No one likes to lose in the playoffs, but this isn't 2008-09. That team exited the first round of the playoffs after getting beat by Orlando. Andre Miller was a free agent, and DiLeo, then the interim coach, was a short-timer. Those playoffs meant little because what followed was a rebuild.
"If we were an older team and we were just trying to make the playoffs to show our fans we were a playoff team, I think that's one thing," Collins said. "But I think when you're a younger team and you're getting in the playoffs, it's for altogether different reasons. I think it's, 'Get the experience. Play. Let's see if we can win, and now we know where we have to go,' because your weaknesses are magnified and scrutinized at this point in time."
The Sixers know what they need, and they know what they want. They want to win now, but realistically they want to win in the future. Keep building. Keep learning. So next time the gap between the Sixers and their opponent will not be quite as big. So next time we will not be talking about moral victories. We will be talking about actual ones.
Contact columnist Ashley Fox
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