On Saturday night, minutes before his Philadelphia 76ers took the court to open their Eastern Conference semifinal series in Boston, Doug Collins went out of his way to dismiss the notion that his raw, inexperienced team was better off missing the playoffs than marching to its sure postseason death this spring.
"Our young guys are growing up," said Collins, whose Sixers had just surprisingly toppled the No. 1-seeded Chicago Bulls. "That's what you do -- you play in these kinds of moments, and you can't pay for the experience that you're getting. For anyone who said being in the lottery is better than being in the playoffs, you're missing the point about trying to grow a young team."
On a certain level, the criticism made sense. The Sixers had begun the frantic, lockout-shortened season 18-7 before crashing and burning -- they lost sight of their identity offensively, they began to resist Collins' leadership, and they lost 24 of their last 41 games.
But now they're here, they've beaten the Bulls (Derrick Rose or no Derrick Rose, an impressive feat either way), and they're tied 1-1 with the Celtics, even Steven in their bid to pull off another upset and advance to the Eastern finals. This is more than a teachable moment -- this is a group of youngsters beginning to look like a legitimate basketball team.
"Our guys just keep growing," Collins said. "They're really becoming men. I'm so proud of them. Doc Rivers is arguably the best coach in the NBA, and for our guys to just scrap through a game tonight… we just found a way. Again I have to tell you: All season long, we couldn't win these games, and now our guys are believing they can do it. It's pretty special to watch."
In yet another ugly, grinding game, characterized by turnovers, missed shots and numerous blown opportunities by both teams, the Sixers persevered and got this one. The Celtics had the lead with a minute and a half to play, courtesy of back-to-back 3-pointers from Avery Bradley and Ray Allen, but rather than shy away from the challenge of fighting back the way they'd done in Game 1, the Sixers persevered this time.
Philly strung together multiple stops, including one where Rajon Rondo had to force a desperate deep jumper in the waning seconds of the shot clock. Evan Turner attacked the rim and came up with the biggest bucket of the game, giving his team a 76-75 lead with 40 seconds left. And then when the Celtics had one last shot, Andre Iguodala won the game by selling an offensive foul on a moving screen from Kevin Garnett.
"I think we're growing up," Jrue Holiday said. "We have a young team, but I can't preach enough about our vets, really, just taking us under their wings and keeping us focused and paying attention to detail. The little things helped us win this game."
The little things won this one for Philly, and they lost it for Boston. Rondo got fancy early in the game, obsessively overpassing like he was trying to chase down Magic Johnson and John Stockton for the playoff assist record. Brandon Bass went cold from the floor in the second quarter -- he'd been hot early, and he tried to push the streak a little too hard. Paul Pierce gave everything he had on a bum knee, but he got outhustled by the younger, healthier, more athletic Iguodala.
This one was a wake-up call. The Celtics were the favorites going into this series, and they knew it -- and that mentality might have crept into their game tonight. But now they're tied 1-1 and the Sixers have stolen home court, as the cliche goes. It's time to reevaluate this Philly team.
"They are who we thought they were," Pierce insisted, channeling Dennis Green. "They are a tough defensive team, they grind it out defensively, and they're not going to give in. They have a good coach over there who instills his mentality into his players. So nothing surprising. They are what we expected them to be."
Either way, the Celtics need to be sharper down in Philly this week. This Sixers team has issued a demand to be taken seriously -- it's time to see if the C's will listen.