CHICAGO — The serendipity of tonight's referendum game is delicious.
Doug Collins is an Illinois schoolboy legend and college star who got his first NBA coaching job, as a very young man, in Chicago. Tonight against the Bulls, Collins will try to win his first road playoff game as Sixers coach.
Evan Turner is part of Chicagoland lore, a pedigreed star out of St. Joseph High, which produced Isaiah Thomas. Tonight against the Bulls, Turner, at the end of his second season, should get his first playoff start.
Derrick Rose, the reigning MVP and Turner's archrival in high school, will not play. He tore the ACL in his left knee at the end of the Bulls' Game 1 win Saturday.
The absence of Rose increases the pressure on Collins, who won't have to coach against the league's least defendable guard. It increases the pressure on Turner, who won't have to defend Rose — but who will have to defend the remarks he made to the Delaware County Daily Times near the season's end.
Turner stated his preference to face the everyman Bulls over the star-studded Heat. That made him a marked man in his hometown. Boos cascade him whenever he touches the ball. He plays to his nickname, the Villain.
The scene could hardly be written better. Its outcome will be fascinating.
"I think Evan's a big-game competitor," Collins said, pointing to Turner's play in last year's playoff loss to the Heat. "I think he thrives in those moments. I thought he took the challenge of playing against D-Wade and LeBron."
Turner's freshman performance in the NIT Final Four, his scintillating run through the Big Ten Tournament 2 years later — time and again he relished his villainy.
"It's what I've always done. It's what I've grown up doing," Turner said. "You never want to fade from that situation."
No. You want to shine.
Turner was good Saturday — 12 points, five assists, three rebounds, in just under 30 minutes — but good is not good enough.
In front of your family and your high school rivals and your old girlfriends, you want to be more than good. You want to be incandescent, blinding . . . and validated.
After two seasons of sitting behind Jodie Meeks, under the thumb of Collins, you want to win, but, desperately, you want to arrive.
Collins just wants to win.
Tonight, both ends can be served.
Collins and Turner carefully parry any question whose thrust implies friction between them — a very real friction for the better part of two seasons.
Now, Collins conveniently paints Turner as the Sixers' chief casualty of a lockout-induced, 66-game schedule.
"He should have been a starter. Evan was one of our better players," Collins said. But, he said, "We wanted to start with the same group of guys we thought would give us the best advantage going into the season, with little practice. Evan was the victim of that."
Turner also was the victim of Collins' refusal to sacrifice team success for player development. The Sixers sprinted to 20-9 before fading to the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
"I wanted to get off to a good start. We did," Collins said. "I'm not sure if we'd be a playoff team if we hadn't done that."
Collins compliments Turner's midrange shooting, which is accurate, then calls Turner his best rebounder, which is not accurate. But it's nice.
The truth is, Turner can't hit anything outside of 20 feet. He is a distracted off-the-ball defender. He spent three seasons at Ohio State creating his own offense off the dribble, so he is inexpert at both getting himself free and using his 6-7 size to post up smaller defenders.
So, instead, Meeks.
That could change tonight, for good, in the place where it all started, both for the man calling the shots, and for the man taking them.
Collins waxes nostalgic about his time in Chicago. His son, Chris, was Illinois' Mr. Basketball at Glenbrook North before he went to Duke, where he now coaches. Collins' daughter, Kelly, earned 11 varsity letters before playing at Lehigh.
Collins is so close with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf that, a few years ago, he once declined to work for Reinsdorf again. Collins calls Bulls vice president John Paxson one of his favorite players.
Collins never coached the Bulls at the United Center but dozens of employees from Chicago Stadium emigrated to the new building, people Collins knows well. City bus drivers recognize him and honk as he strolls down Michigan Avenue. Fans on the street are still kind. "The respect the people show me is off the charts," Collins said. "You walk into the United Center and it feels like I've come back to a family situation."
Of course, it is a family situation for Turner. He gets hundreds of texts when he returns — he has since his college days, when OSU played Northwestern — but he generally ignores them.
"It's not realistic for me to go out and hang out. I've got business. I've got to work. That stuff drives me crazy, to tell you the truth," Turner said.
Instead, he will indulge.
On Friday, Turner ordered chicken wings from Lou Malnati's. On Sunday, he hit Home Run Inn, famous for its pizza. Monday, he headed to Portillo's — not for its famous Chicago-style hot dogs but, rather, for the breaded chicken sandwich, served without sauce. Just $4.40.
He's thrifty, too. Like Collins.
The pair shares much in common besides their Chicago roots.
Like Turner, Collins was a high Sixers draft pick; Turner, No. 2 overall in 2010; Collins, No. 1 overall in 1973.
Like Turner, Collins needed a season of seasoning —Collins, to acclimate to the pain of chronic foot problems; Turner, to correct lousy shooting mechanics.
Collins got the job shepherding the Bulls and Michael Jordan in 1986 at the age of 35. Three years and three playoff appearances later, the Bulls, exhausted by his intense style, asked him to leave.
Twenty-three years and two other coaching stops later, in his second season as Sixers head coach, Collins again is in charge of a flock of turtledoves. Collins this time has softened his approach.
Except with Turner, a second overall pick who has been handled like a second-rounder. With only two exceptions, no healthy No. 2 overall pick in the past decade has started in as small a percentage of his team's games by the end of his second season — just under 22 percent, including playoffs.
Larry Brown perpetually benched Darko Milicic in Detroit for two seasons, but Milicic wasn't even 20; Turner is 23. When Tanzanian giant Hasheem Thabeet was drafted by Memphis in 2009, he had been playing basketball for just 7 years.
Turner now can make his case, and do so without the chief impediment.
Rose was hurt plenty this season. The Bulls went 18-9 without him, which ensured them the No. 1 overall seed. However, the Bulls were just 7-5 against playoff teams without Rose. The Bulls without Rose are, simply, not nearly as good.
Though they did beat Philadelphia without Rose.
Turner started that game, too. And Collins coached it.
In Chicago. n