April 10, 2008 -- There was a touch of irony earlier this month in Atlanta.
The last time the Philadelphia 76ers boarded the charter and blew out of Hartsfield, they were at their low point of the season. On Feb. 4, they had given away an 18-point first-quarter lead in a 96-91 setback to the Hawks that dropped them to 18-30.
The loss was Philadelphia's 13th in 17 games and had the 76ers headed for where everyone had them going on an annual basis for the next several years - right up the turnpike here to Secaucus, for the drawing of ping-pong balls that was supposed to accompany a prolonged case of superstar withdrawal.
Yes, playoffs. Back at their burial plot, the Sixers clinched their first postseason berth in three years with a win over the Hawks that continued one of the most confounding comebacks in recent memory. Between shopping sprees at every player's favorite shoe store, the Sixers went 21-7. Only one team played better basketball, and they had to make history to do so.
How did the Sixers - puttering along at a robust .375 clip - suddenly transform into a .750 ballclub? There are a lot of opinions.
There seems to be a reluctance to credit a certain member of the NBA TV crew. But the fact remains that Billy King - fired from his GM position after the Sixers sputtered to a 5-12 start - did personally select every player on this roster via the draft, free agency or a trade.
There also seems to be an overreaction to the job done by Maurice Cheeks, yet his calming presence has been important to the team's evolution.
Some people want to credit King's replacement, Ed Stefanski, who suggested to Cheeks to "play the kids." But that suggestion came after Stefanski unloaded the contract of the team's only legitimate perimeter threat and tried to dump its best rebounder.
Besides, what else was Cheeks supposed to do? Start Kevin Ollie and Calvin Booth? Kids were all he had, and he was in the last year of his contract.
The kids did have something in common - they could all run like gazelles. When the Sixers deploy a lineup of Samuel Dalembert, Thaddeus Young and Rodney Carney up front and Lou Williams and Andre Iguodala in the backcourt, they are by far the most athletic team in the NBA.
As no less an authority than Gregg Popovich said after the Sixers made his Spurs look about 80 years old, "They have an identity now."
Iguodala's emergence as a true star certainly has been a huge factor. The prevailing opinion was Iguodala would never evolve into a top option, a cornerstone, a franchise face - whatever your label du jour may be - and made a mistake not accepting the $55 million or so the Sixers offered before the season.
But if you have watched the Sixers over the last two months, you have seen Iguodala - who may have the best NBA body not belonging to LeBron James - display all of the personality traits of a superstar. A willingness to put the game in his hands and do something with it once it's there. A more demonstrative approach on the court to instill belief in his younger teammates. A complete package at both ends of the court.
Hey, Ed. Pay the man.
However, while all of these elements have helped transform the Sixers, none has been as meaningful as the glue that has held it all together - Andre Miller.
On first blush, Miller appears out of place here. While his teammates are soaring above the rim, his stocky build keeps him firmly anchored to the floor. He never has made an All-Star team. He even was booed in the 2000 Rookie Challenge for coasting in for a layup instead of dunking on a breakaway.
In his ninth season, Miller is averaging career highs in scoring and shooting percentage. A former assist champion, he is still racking up nearly seven a game, while his turnovers are at their lowest since his rookie season. Oh, yeah, he's pretty reliable, too, having not missed a game since James was still in high school.
Those are just numbers, however, and they don't tell the whole story. Miller never is part of the debate surrounding the league's best point guards, but it is hard to imagine many floor generals providing the guidance, leadership and direction this group desperately had to have.
Stefanski can't take credit for this one - not after pursuing trade possibilities for Miller, including one for this guy. Neither can King, who took back Miller in the Allen Iverson trade because the Nuggets had to clear a backcourt slot for their newly acquired superstar.
And if you're wondering about that old adage about the point guard being a coach on the floor, go to the 1:10 mark of this clip and tell me that's not true, especially here.
In the fourth quarter of the clincher in Atlanta, there was Miller, coming up with timely hoops and a key steal, battling the bigger Joe Johnson in the low post, sinking free throws, helping Philadelphia climb entirely out of the abyss and into the postseason.
After the game, Miller - who never has won a playoff series - admitted that Philadelphia's unlikely resurrection is "one of the better moments of my career."
It is definitely one of the better moments of this season.