CHICAGO - Whether the opponent for this year's playoffs was the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls, none of it would matter if the 76ers had been playing the type of basketball they displayed from the last half of February to the middle of April, when they went 11-21 after a 20-9 start.
But four straight wins recently have calmed choppy waters, according to coach Doug Collins and his players. They enter this Eastern Conference best-of-seven series against the Bulls now a better team than the one that started the season with guns blazing, they say.
Talk of players turning on the coach and vice versa seemed to dominate the conversation during the losing times. Many pointed to the fact that, in his previous coaching stints, Collins was able to improve his teams immediately, then seemingly reached a plateau before losing his players, and ultimately his job not long after.
That wasn't starting to be the case here, insist the players. While Collins' abrasiveness can sometimes feel like a grater on the skin, they say they understand where he's coming from and his motives.
"These young guys will learn that every coach you are going to play for is going to be high-strung," said veteran Tony Battie, who has played for seven teams in his 14 seasons. "When your job is to win games you live and you breathe every play, every game. And then when you hit rough patches throughout the season it gets worse. As players sometimes we get a little oversensitive, especially when we're losing. You don't want to panic, but it is there. It's his job to correct us and to right the ship. I don't buy too much into it. Every locker room has its ins and outs, its good times and bad times. As they say, you can't get too high and you can't get too low. Right now, the sea is calm and things are good, and we're in a positive direction mentally in this locker room, and we're looking forward to playing Chicago."
They are now. A few weeks ago, probably not so much. But a few wins can go a long way toward healing whatever is ailing a struggling team.
"We fought through a period of time where we weren't playing well, and I think we're playing well again," Collins said. "I like our energy. I like what we're doing. I think we have multiple guys playing well at the right time, which is important. That was my whole key. To beat a team like Chicago, for us we have to have seven, eight, nine guys playing well because we're a sum-of-our-parts team. I thought we went through a stretch of time this year where we didn't have enough guys playing well. That's why I sort of mixed and matched. Our guys know right now it's all about winning. We've put ourselves in a great position now to see what we can do."
One of the key players for Collins, he said Friday after the team's practice at the United Center, was local kid Evan Turner.
"Evan's one of our better players and against Chicago you need to have playmakers, because they play such good defense," Collins said. "They will try to run you out of your plays. He's one of our better rebounders and a key to this series is going to be rebounding. A lot of it is going to be on our wings. Dre [Andre Iguodala] is going to have to rebound the ball, and Evan.
"They have one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA, which causes problems. You've got to be able to contain [Derrick] Rose and we might have to use Evan a little bit with his size on trying to play against Rose a little bit. He gives us a lot of versatility."
That may surprise some, as many see the relationship between Collins and Turner as rocky. Collins hasn't seemed to be able to find consistent use for Turner, and the second-year swingman hasn't done a very good job of hiding his displeasure during games. The playoffs are a clean slate, however, and Collins is looking for big contributions from the Ohio State product. Many probably didn't see it coming. Turner, though, says all is good between him and Collins.
"I think we're cool," Turner said of him and Collins. "I don't have a problem with him, I respect him. It's all about the team. When it comes to that, what I think about things or how I'm being handled is trumped because it's about the team. That's all you really worry about, the unit.
"Absolutely, there's been frustration, but at the end it's all about winning. I would never, ever try to stop anything to benefit myself. Absolutely, you get frustrated in certain situations or how you're being handled or how you think you played, but it's about the squad. That's what you do for a team. I respect the players. I think people always think [he and Collins] are fighting. I never saw that. I just come in and I just try to make sure I get better every day and try to do what he asks me to do and he wants to make me a better player."
And Collins will need him to be in this playoff series if the Sixers are going to have any chance of pulling out a couple of games or more. Turner and many others.
"The beauty of the playoffs is you're not going to reinvent the wheel," Collins said. "You might do subtle little things like getting different guys involved in pick and rolls or doing those different types of things, but, at the end of the day, you're going to do the things that worked for you all season long. In Chicago, it's defense, it's rebounding, it's putting the ball in Derrick Rose's hands, him getting in that paint creating all types of different problems. They're not going to change who they are and we can't either."
Although through this season they have - from good to bad and apparently back to good again.
Evan Turner said he tweaked a muscle in the back of his leg on Thursday while warming up. He said it was very sore Friday but he'll be fine for Saturday's opener . . . Doug Collins said Lavoy Allen will be the starting center and Spencer Hawes will come off the bench. Don't expect to see much, if any, of Nikola Vucevic in the lineup . . . Thaddeus Young, Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand and Lou Williams all said the two games they had off to end the regular season was quite refreshing.