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Just The Beginning - 5/29/2012

by MAX RAPPAPORT

Philadelphia is not a town that relishes moral victories. In regard to each of its four major sports teams, the refrain is always the same, "championship or bust".

The Sixers are no exception.

For the last decade, since the team made an improbable championship run in 2000-01 behind inspired play from electrifying guard Allen Iverson, professional basketball in the City of Brotherly Love has largely been an afterthought.

Not any more.

Under the guidance of a new ownership group that stressed a renewed dedication to bringing championship basketball back to the city, the Sixers were revitalized. What ensued was the team's most successful season since 2002-03.

Philly finished with a 35-31 (.530) record, their best in nine seasons. And when they reached the playoffs, they shocked the league and became just the fifth eight seed in NBA history to win a playoff series, defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls in six games.

They then took on their division rivals, the Boston Celtics, in a hotly contested Eastern Conference Semifinals. The young Sixers were able to hold their own against the four-seeded Celtics, taking them to the wire before dropping Game Seven 75-85 on the road at TD Garden.

When the team returned to Philadelphia early Sunday morning following the game, an assembly of passionate Sixer fans had gathered at the airport to greet them.

They were not there to celebrate the team's seven postseason wins. They were there because they saw promise in this young Philly team that had held its own against a pair of playoff-tested veteran squads.

Perhaps more exciting than the playoff run itself was the fashion in which it was made.

Flash back to 2010-11. The Sixers were able to overcome a 3-13 start to the regular season and finish the season 38-28 en route to a clean .500 in the standings. Veterans Elton Brand (32 years old) and Andre Iguodala (28) carried the team down the stretch, finishing first and second, respectively, in points and rebounds on the year and serving as the team's most consistent offensive options.

In 2011-12, however, the Sixer youngsters were able to take an expanded role in the offense, especially by season's end. During the postseason, four of the Sixers' top five scorers were Jrue Holiday (21), Lou Williams (25), Evan Turner (23), and Spencer Hawes (23), all of whom still have room to grow with the team as it looks to take the leap into championship contention.

Going into this year, the team's nine regular rotation players, of whom only two were older than 25, had just 30 career playoff wins between them, with Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand accounting for nearly half (14). Following a 15-game playoff run this past year, the team has seen that number balloon to 93.

Head coach Doug Collins knows that for a young team such as the one he commands, such experience is truly invaluable.

With one of the most respected head coaches in the business, a roster stocked with young talent, and owners who have committed to doing whatever it takes to bring the Larry O'Brien Trophy to Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers appear poised to take that all-important step from playoff contender to championship contender.

Now all we have to do as fans is sit back, reflect, and wait to see what the future will hold.