Doug Collins comes out of a game as if he had just been running for 48 minutes. His dress shirt is covered in sweat, and you would think he was bouncing the ball up and down the court instead of just coaching.
The Philadelphia 76ers coach, who returned to the bench this year from his job as a TV analyst for the first time since 2002-03, is excited about the game and his team. They continue to keep him on edge.
|Andre Iguodala is averaging 14.3 points and 6.4 assists per game so far this season. (Getty Images)|
"I don't even know what to say," Collins said after beating the Bulls. "These guys never cease to amaze me."
The 76ers easily could have folded following their slow start. Going back to 2009-10, Philadelphia ended the season 5-21 to finish 27-55, so this team didn't know much about winning. But Collins wouldn't let them fall apart.
They went 8-7 in December, 8-6 in January and 8-3 in February, and the players could feel something was building. They felt they had something special.
"We've had a lot of time to get everybody on the same page," guard Lou Williams said. "We're playing extremely good basketball the past few months. Once you start rolling, you get two or three wins, you get momentum. When you have confidence then good things happen."
It hasn't been a smooth ride for the 76ers, who are still trying to peak. They are only 8-7 in March, and before beating Chicago, Philadelphia was coming off a two-game losing streak, with a tough loss at Miami on Friday and an embarrassing home loss against Sacramento on Sunday.
Andre Iguodala, the 76ers' best player, is dealing with knee tendinitis that has limited his play. And their best post player, Elton Brand, is battling hand injuries. Collins hopes their best basketball will come in the playoffs, and the players are excited for the postseason. Philadelphia is looking at a first-round matchup with the Heat or Celtics, which would be a daunting task.
"We just have to try to keep playing good basketball," Iguodala said. "You can't make any major changes with a couple of games left. We just have to be ready to go."
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Added Brand: "We know what we have to do to get better. We can contend."
The 76ers have become one of the feel-good stories of the NBA this season, and Collins is a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate. They are playing as a team, and Williams said a reason for the turnaround is their "camaraderie and chemistry." There don't appear to be any egos in this locker room.
There are six players who average over 10 points a game, including Brand at a team-high 14.8 and Iguodala at 14.3. Iguodala and second-year point guard Jrue Holiday are solid playmakers, with both averaging more than six assists, and Brand is the leading rebounder at 8.5 per game. They also have a consistent 3-point threat in Jodie Meeks, who is connecting on 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Collins understands the shortcomings of his team -- "we're not very big" -- with 7-foot-1 center Spencer Hawes and the 6-9 Brand offering their only size. But the 76ers are a scrappy bunch, and they hope to be a tough team to eliminate in the playoffs.
"We're coming down the stretch," Collins said. "We're trying to win as many games as we can. We're still not in the playoffs yet, so we have a lot of work left to be done."
Collins knows his team will put in the work to continue to improve -- if he's sweating, so are his players. The 76ers didn't give up following their slow start, and they keep pushing hard to get better as the season comes to a close.
They might not make a deep postseason run, but they have shown that they are a resilient team with the chance to be a potential contender in the future.