Posted May 23 2012 11:46AM
It's easy to count out the Philadelphia 76ers at this point.
They're facing elimination against a team that has been through so many more of these situations than they have. They're only here because Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah were injured in the first round. And even if they can win Game 6 at home on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), they're facing the prospect of winning a Game 7 on the road.
You can pencil the Boston Celtics into the Eastern Conference finals. Just keep an eraser handy, because this Sixers squad has shown enough resilience over the last few weeks that they can't be dismissed so easily.
Sixers coach Doug Collins has claimed multiple times in this series that his team has grown over the last few weeks. And he's right.
This was a team that couldn't close out games and was awful at getting to the free-throw line in the regular season. But in the 2012 Playoffs, the Sixers have had the second-best clutch offense and the fifth-highest free-throw rate. They've out-executed the Celtics in two of the three close games in this series, and they've attempted seven more free throws.
These playoffs, as well as a series of critical road wins at the end of the regular season, have given the Sixers some much-needed experience in pressure situations. That should not only help for however long this postseason lasts, but also in the years to come. At this point, this team knows it can win big games against good teams.
It also knows that there were a lot of mistakes in Game 5 that can be cleaned up. The Celtics won by 20 on Monday, but that game turned on five Philly turnovers in a stretch of six possessions midway through the third quarter. At that time, the Sixers could have had a bigger lead had they made their free throws.
"We've got to be strong with the ball," Collins said afterward. "I told my guys that to win Game 6 we've got to be mentally and physically tougher."
Defensively, the Sixers know they have to account for Brandon Bass, who took advantage of the attention Philly was paying to his All-Star teammates in Game 5, tying a career high with 27 points.
"Too many easy baskets, too many dunks," Collins said.
Like the Celtics, the Sixers have a small margin for error. They lack someone they can count on for a bucket or a couple of free throws on critical possessions. Elton Brand's return to form -- 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting -- in Game 5 was encouraging, though.
With the Sixers' season potentially down to just 48 minutes, the good news is that the Celtics haven't been very good at closing the deal. Over the last five seasons (since Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett joined Paul Pierce), they're just 3-9 in their first chance to eliminate a playoff opponent.
Despite the prospect of their season coming to an end on Wednesday, Collins wants his team to stay loose and enjoy the moment. He's loving every minute of this postseason run, and he wants his players to do so, too.
"I want our guys to really embrace this time and, as much pressure as there might be, to try to have fun while they're doing it," Collins said. "I just think the best way to be successful is to have fun. And I know sometimes it's easier said than done to do that, but I think our guys are enjoying themselves, and that means a lot to me."
Though we can list several reasons to doubt the Sixers' ability to win this series, here's the bottom line: Philly is one of only six teams still playing. After a fast start to the regular season, a precipitous fall and some wild playoff games, they've earned the right to keep their season alive.
Before Game 5, Collins was asked if he could have imagined being two wins away from the conference finals when his team was in the midst of a 4-10 March stretch.
"The games and seasons, they change so quickly," he said. "I've been in this business for 40 years and I've learned the old TV line, 'Expect the unexpected.' And when it happens, hopefully, you're ready to meet to challenge of what you have to do."
The Sixers have come this far. How much further can they go?
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