Last season, the Sixers lost their first three playoff games to the Miami Heat, staved off elimination once and then fell in Game 5 of that opening-round series. Not being swept was a small consolation perhaps, but there was no sense that surviving the one elimination game was because of nothing much more than a brief attention lapse by the Heat.
This time around, however, much more is at stake. If the Sixers are able to hold serve at home and force a Game 7, they will have a real chance to advance to the conference finals for the first time in 11 years and just the second time since 1985. That would be a heady accomplishment for a team that limped to the end of the regular season, barely qualified for the playoffs, and looked like an easy out.
The way opened up for them because of injuries to the top-seeded Chicago Bulls and what appears to be the rapid devolution of the Boston Celtics, but they have taken advantage of the opportunities and, in many stretches, brought to life Collins' vision of an unselfish, sum-of-the-parts team that wins with defense and speed.
Getting to the next round would be an affirmation of the coach's vision as well as a nice reward for the players who have to hear about it every day. Getting there ain't going to be easy, though. Winning two in a row against a Celtics' team that is very motivated to get this thing over is a challenge that might be good for the experience bank, but little more than that. We'll see. It has been an unpredictable series, which is a reflection of its participants: one too young to be dependable and one too old.
"Our season's over if we lose this game, so the pressure is different and the energy level has to be different," Elton Brand said. "We need to find a way to win this game."
There is plenty to improve upon after a game Monday in which the Sixers fell apart in the third quarter, although the game was also lost when they failed to take advantage of a hot first half and then, after falling behind, failed to respond to getting smacked.
"We didn't match their tenacity," Collins said.
After four games of trying to decide whether the Celtics should play a big lineup or a small lineup, Doc Rivers went big because he had no other choice. Starting guard Avery Bradley is out with a shoulder injury and Ray Allen is a shell of himself, so Rivers looked down the bench in the crucial third quarter and selected Brandon Bass to save the day. Nice call. Bass scored a career playoff-high 27 points, with most of it coming against the smaller Sixers' frontcourt of Lavoy Allen, Thaddeus Young, and Andre Iguodala.
It turned out to be a good matchup for the Celtics, but only because the Sixers didn't finish their defensive rotations. They got to the first pass or the first screen, but didn't keep up when the Celts kept moving the ball. Credit for that goes to point guard Rajon Rondo, who had another 14 assists and who schooled Jrue Holiday in the nuances of the position. After halftime, Holiday had zero points, zero rebounds, two assists, and three turnovers.
Collins has to rethink his philosophy in the frontcourt, particularly if Bass continues to lift his older teammates. His options aren't plentiful, although Spencer Hawes and Brand can take up some room, and he does have 12 idle fouls sitting on the bench in the form of Nik Vucevic and Tony Battie, both of whom should be well rested if nothing else. Waiting for Young (30 points in five games) to turn into a go-to playoff performer doesn't seem advisable any longer.
"The big thing is you have to keep competing and make it a rougher game. You can't let them walk into their shots, get to certain spots," said Evan Turner. "You've got to make it tougher for them."
That's one idea and it's worth a try, particularly at home where the 76ers might get the benefit of being allowed to muscle up. Anything is worth a try at the moment, because there might not be that many moments left.
They are heading for another valuable experience. Only that much is certain. As for the rest, after five games of this strange series, any guess is good.
Contact Bob Ford at firstname.lastname@example.org, read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.