The Sixers' 97-85 win over the Chicago Bulls Monday night only counts as a single victory in the standings, but the impact that it will have on a young team over the rest of the season is immeasurable.
"When we got together at 9:30 this morning, we won the game," said a beaming Collins after the victory. "We talked about what we believe in, how we do things and how we wouldn't waver from them... I could not be more proud of this team."
It's been an eventful week for Doug Collins and his charges, to say the least. Last Friday, they took their talents to South Beach and battled the Miami Heat in a possible playoff preview. Despite a 16-point second quarter lead, the Sixers couldn't stop Dwyane Wade (39 points) down the stretch and lost to the Heat 111-99.
Against Sacramento on Sunday, not only did the team come out flat, but they wasted several chances to put the Kings away early, and wound up on the wrong end of a 114-111 overtime defeat. After the game, 76ers guard Lou Williams alluded to the fact that he and several teammates attended a Lil' Wayne concert the night before, possibly contributing to the loss.
The concert quasi-controversy lingered over the team as they made their way to Chicago's United Center, where the Bulls were 32-4 on the season heading into Monday night. Overall, the Bulls began the day with a 53-19 mark, best in the Eastern Conference.
Early on, it looked like the Sixers were the ones with 50-plus wins on the season, riding an 11-1 first quarter run en route to a 27-13 lead after 12 minutes.
"Philly lost a game at home last night. I knew they would be ready tonight," said Bulls' head coach Tom Thibodeau. "We weren't. We came out flat."
After a sluggish first half, Bulls point guard Derrick Rose showed why he's the odds-on favorite to win the league's MVP award, scoring 24 of his 31 points after intermission with a dazzling array of jumpers, floaters and other shots that defied description.
At times, though, Rose looked flustered against the 76ers defense, committing a career-high 10 turnovers to go along with his five assists.
Andre Iguodala - still battling a nagging right knee injury - led the 76ers starters with 19 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. But the night belonged to Thaddeus Young, who had 21 points and pulled down 7 rebounds in 25 minutes off of the bench.
The hearts of Sixers' fans were in their collective throats when Young went down awkwardly late in the 4th quarter with an apparent groin injury. Although he didn't return to the game, it was later determined that the injury wasn't all that serious.
With Young out, Spencer Hawes emerged as the 76ers unlikely hero down the stretch, hitting three clutch jumpers as the Bulls made repeated efforts to take the lead down the stretch. The Sixers led for all 48 minutes of the contest, a fact that probably wasn't lost on Doug Collins during his postgame speech to the team.
Ironically enough, the 76ers' best win of the season came on the same floor where they received their most crushing defeat. The Bulls trampled the Sixers 121-76 at the United Center back on December 21.
Aside from Young, the rest of the 76ers' reserves were relatively quiet on Monday night. Williams was the only other non-starter to score against the Bulls, finishing with 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting. In the past two games, Williams is shooting a combined 3-for-23 from the field (13 percent).
One of the key members of that reserve unit - Evan Turner - has seen his minutes cut drastically as the Sixers make their final push towards the playoffs. Turner logged eight minutes - scoring two points - in Friday's contest versus the Heat, and he was scoreless in just under seven minutes of action against the Bulls.
Although it wasn't the case on Monday, it appears that a good portion of Turner's playing time down the stretch will be given to small forward Andres Nocioni. Earlier in the week, Collins stated that he intentionally rested the playoff-tested Nocioni during the year so that he would be ready for the postseason.
Speaking of the so-called "second season", with the Eastern Conference standings in a constant state of flux, it's hard to determine which teams will face each other when the playoffs start less than three weeks from today. If the Sixers do meet up with Chicago in the first round, they can take solace in the fact that they've beaten the Bulls twice in the teams' three meetings this season.
At 38-36, the Sixers are well-positioned for their stretch run as six of their final eight games are at the Wells Fargo Center. With the exception of the Boston Celtics, no team left on their schedule is as talented as the Bulls team they defeated on Monday.
That being said, there's still no margin for error - nor time for Lil' Wayne concerts - as the regular season draws to a close.