Whatever doubts Collins might have had disappeared for good on Friday night when his club clinched a playoff spot with a 25-point win over the New Jersey Nets at the Center. From 3-13 to 40-36 in a little more than four months takes a lot of believe insomething.
Belief and stubbornness, Collins said.
“I wasn’t sure,” Collins said after the 115-90 victory, “but I hadn’t given up hope. We weren’t going to change what we were doing because we believed in what we were doing. I believe that if you do things that are worth doing that good things will happen. We weren’t going to change.”
Still, there was a moment early on when everything just sort of came together. Part light bulb and part pep talk, the turning point of the season came after a tough loss in Miami the day after Thanksgiving when Andre Iguodala got the team together and gave them a very simple message…
“We’re close,” he told his teammates. “Let’s stick together.”
From that point, the Sixers have gone 37-23 and are the one team in the Eastern Conference that the heavyweights want to avoid in the first round of the playoffs.
Still, did Iguodala realize then that his words would resonate so profoundly?
“With some of the personalities we have it’s all about confidence,” Iguodala said. “Some of the guys play well based off if the ball is going in the hole for them or not. If the ball is not going in the hole the guy’s confidence can get shot. We had just lost to Miami and we played well, so I felt I had to reiterate to the guys that if we continue to play at that level we’ll beat the majority of the teams in the league and we’ll be alright. Since then, we’ve been doing that.”
What Iguodala’s words did was show the younger guys on the team that just because they were 3-13 that the season wasn’t over. Though it seemed as if the Sixers couldn’t wait for the year to end last season when they only won 27 games with a coach in Eddie Jordan that just didn’t mesh well with the ballclub, it would have been easy for a poor start to demoralize the team.
However, with an active roster comprised of six players with three or fewer years of experience and just five guys over the age of 24, Iguodala’s speech and Elton Brand to support was gigantic.
“For the guys to know that I was 100 percent on board and trying and Andre was on board and trying, it showed that we weren’t giving up on the season even though we were 3-13,” Brand said.
Brand and Iguodala have coached and prodded the team in areas where it could be difficult for Collins to do so. For instance, after the overtime loss to Sacramento where a few players were out late the night before the noontime game, Collins turned the policing over to Brand and Iguodala and, once again, it worked.
The Sixers have ripped off three straight wins since.
Then again, maybe it goes deeper than just leadership. Though he’s finishing his fourth year in the league and is headed to the postseason for the third time, Thad Young is still just 23. As such, he says last season left him with a lot of bitterness and was an experience he did not want to repeat. After all, he was far too young to be a jaded NBA vet.
But Young explained that the necessary changes from last year had been made and appear to be the big difference.
“We feel like we’ve taken strides and leaps from the beginning of the season until now. I think we’re a contender, a real contender and we can do something really special here,” Young said.
Of course that feeling that Young described had a starting point and it all goes back to that game in Miami.
“It was definitely a turning point. ‘Dre and E.B. have been talking all year and saying that we’re always one step away or that we need a few more things to work on,” Young said. “We’re still not quite there, but we’re definitely a much better team now.”
So from 3-13 to 40-36 and from doormat to a team that makes the opposition feel as if they are trying to handle mercury in so short of time is a pretty big deal and points to the effort the Sixers have put in. Yet, more than that it shows how much the teammates believe in each other and understand leadership when it arises.
No, the Sixers probably won’t be favored to win in the first round, but at the very least they did something this season.
“At the end of the day it’s all about making the playoffs,” Collins said.