Posted Mar 8 2012 10:10AM
The good news for the Sixers is that Doug Collins may have done a Coach of the Year-type job over the first half of the season to coax and cajole and push his team to the top of the Atlantic Division standings.
The bad news is that Collins might have to become the reincarnation of Dr. James Naismith in order to keep them there.
As the blink-and-you'll-miss-it regular season moves toward the playoffs, the Sixers can feel the hot breath of the Celtics on their necks. The Sixers have come this far through teamwork, defensive aggressiveness, a willingness to share the ball and the sheer gumption that's been instilled by Collins. But the truth is that on most nights they are going to be in over their heads against the likes of the Thunder or the Heat.
After building their record up to 20-9 by Feb. 9, the Sixers had lost eight out of 10 before throttling a worn-out bunch of Celtics -- coming off back-to-back overtime games -- on Wednesday night. Six of those losses came by seven points or less, most notably to Dallas, OKC and Chicago, teams with bona fide closers in the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose.
Andre Iguodala's first All-Star appearance this season notwithstanding, the Sixers simply don't have that kind of heavy hammer to swing when rocks need busting.
They trailed by only two going into the fourth quarter at home against the Mavs and were torched by Nowitzki for a dozen points down the stretch. Against the Thunder, Philly had a seven-point lead with under six minutes to play and proceeded to miss 10 straight shots. When the Sixers cut a 13-point Bulls lead to just a bucket, Rose hit a jumper for the last of his 35 points with 20 seconds left to seal the game.
The NBA has always been a star-driven league. Wthout one or more on your roster, the margin for error is as wide as a tightrope.
"It's frustrating," Collins said. "We're growing. We're learning. We're going to keep fighting and find a way to win some of these games."
When it gets down to crunch time, you can practically smell the gray matter burning inside Collins head as he tries to draw up three, four or five different options. That is considerably harder than in OKC, where the Thunder can simply toss the ball to Durant and be confident that he can pretty much get any shot that he wants -- or can at least draw a foul.
"We're a team that has to play with a great deal of confidence," Collins said. "The moment we lose that, we lose a big part of who we are."
But who are the Sixers, really? Can they truly envision themselves lining up for a seven-game playoff series against a Miami or Chicago -- or even Boston or New York for that matter -- and feel that it won't be like constantly trying to roll a boulder up a hill?
Give the Sixers credit for taking care of their business on most nights against the teams that rank below or on their level. But with only a couple of rare exceptions, they have been devoured by mistakes and an inability to execute against quality opponents.
Collins has spent much of the season preaching the gospel of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, the so-called "team without a superstar" that won a title by following coach Larry Brown and playing "the right way." But over the years, the legend of the Pistons seems to grow as their individual talent has been diminished. Does anyone truly believe Chauncey Billups wasn't an elite clutch performer? Do these Sixers really have anyone that equals what Rip Hamilton or Rasheed Wallace or Ben Wallace or Tayshaun Prince did back then?
The Sixers are a fun team, a hustling team, the kind of hard-working, get-in-your-face defensive team that a demanding, gritty city like Philly can love. But eventually that love wants to be reciprocated with more than a nice effort and maybe a token first-round playoff appearance.
This is the dilemma that Collins and general manager Rod Thorn face as the trade deadline draws near. Can they be content to go to the whip with this bunch or do they have to consider making a deal? Did Turner's performance against the Celtics on Wednesday (a career-high 26 points) spark the beginning of a new level for him? Or is it time to swallow hard and peddle the former No. 2 overall pick in order to boost depth and get some more pieces?
The Sixers have been playing without starting center Spencer Hawes (Achilles' tendon) for most of the season. Even if he returns soon, the word is he will be held out of back-to-backs. The upcoming schedule turns much uglier and tougher.
It has been an entertaining and often rewarding season so far. New ownership has re-energized the community. Large crowds are back at the Wells Fargo Center.
Collins has brought these Sixers a long way in a short time, the proverbial magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. Pushing the Sixers much farther will be the real trick.
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