When Doug Collins talks after games, usually with his grandchildren in his lap, you may start to feel like every day is Remember the Titans for this guy. Wet-eyed, earnest, and sometimes ill-advisedly honest, the 60-year-old Collins is a deeply empathetic coach; he's not just hands-on. He's heart-on, too.
They say that teams take on the aura of their coaches. But when I walked into the Sixers' home locker room following the team's 18-point comeback victory against the Boston Celtics on Friday, there was no Explosions in the Sky music or We Did It speeches. Instead, Lou Williams and Jrue Holiday were overheard joking about Top Chef while Evan Turner was letting anyone who would listen know that he'd lost an earring. This didn't look like the locker room of a team after the biggest win of their season. Loose, antsy, and full of dumb jokes, it looked like a bunch of young guys getting out of work on a Friday night.
The Eastern Conference semifinals were now tied at 2-2. The Sixers showed incredible resilience, like they didn't know any better, coming back from not only a huge deficit in Game 4, but from being taken out behind the woodshed and getting fully Rondo'd in Game 3. There was confetti on the floor of the court and the 1970s disco-pop-style anthem, "Here Come the Sixers," was in the air.1 Fans called into 97.5 sports radio and talked with Tom Byrne into the night, invoking victories from the 2001 Iverson-era NBA Finals, the glory days of Barkley vs. the Bad Boys, and even vintage '80s clashes between Bird and Doc. And here was the stylish, carefree, younger half of the Sixers locker room (Holiday, Williams, Turner, Thad Young, and Lavoy Allen) joking around about cooking shows, looking like J.Crew Men's Shop mannequins, and searching for wayward pieces of jewelry. The least talented team left in the NBA playoffs had just beaten a Celtics squad with three lock Hall of Famers and Rondo, who, on any given night, can put in a performance that demands a hall of its own.2 They'd just won the ugliest, most entertaining game of the postseason. Didn't these guys realize what they'd just done?
Friday night did not start out well. The Sixers were coming off a 107-91 Game 3 loss that was much worse than the score suggested. Turner shot 1-for-10 from the field, including missing a wide-open six-footer that felt like lost episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Lavoy Allen got into early foul trouble, which allowed Kevin Garnett to abuse Spencer Hawes and Elton Brand to the tune of 27 points and 14 rebounds, adding some Last of the Under Armour Mohicans chest-thumping in the middle of the court as a coda. There was an E'Twuan Moore sighting, even if there were hardly any Sixers fans left in the building to see it.
During the Game 3 press conference, Collins sounded more like an analyst than a coach. He was blown away by the Celtics' performance. "I think they are looking at that other series a little bit," Collins said. "I think they see Chris Bosh being out. They see a tremendous opportunity for themselves." He said all this with admiration and respect, almost teasing out a narrative: We are just a roadblock on their path to Miami and beyond, we'll put up a fight, but you all saw what just happened out there.
Collins's honesty streak continued late Friday afternoon when he met with the press outside the Sixers' locker room before Game 4. When asked whether Elton Brand — who was nursing a neck injury and generally looked like someone who had no business being on the same court as Brandon Bass, to say nothing of Kevin Garnett, during his dismal 14 minutes of play in Game 3 — would start in Game 4, Collins, seizing the moment to have a moment, said, "He's one of our proudest players; I admire and respect him to the ultimate. I'm not going to come in here in a game like tonight and not have him in our starting lineup. I have too much respect for this game and him and what he's done for this team, for what he's done for this organization. I might have to sub early, but I'm going to give him every chance to go out and play, absolutely. That's who I am."
The Sixers started Brand at power forward and found themselves down 18-3 in the first quarter. This is Doug Collins. He would die for his players, even if it kills them.
All coaches have a shtick. Gregg Popovich is a CEO who manages a corporate culture, Phil Jackson is a philosopher who draws from disciplines outside of basketball to motivate his players. Vinny Del Negro has a white piece of paper with nothing written on it. Doug Collins's shtick is being the loving, demanding patriarch. And it fits the new identity of the franchise.
This is a club that relies on the idea of "love" as a connection to its fan base. It's their identity. The official slogan on posters and during pregame films is "Passionate. Intense. Proud." The one everyone throws around on Twitter, the same one Lou Williams sang out in the locker room after the series-clinching Game 6 victory in Chicago, is "Show Ya Luv." In the absence of a star player — something Andre Iguodala, for all his charms, is not — they have tried to sell emotion. They sell nostalgia, too, with the old-school font on the court of the Wells Fargo Center. New owners Adam Aron and Joshua Harris brought Julius Erving back into the fold as an adviser. They play the anthem and show footage of Mo Cheeks and Darryl Dawkins. That's the pitch. Remember all this? It can be this way again. This is the future. Just buy season tickets.
Is it working? Not just yet. With the Red Sox in town on Friday, South Philadelphia was particularly difficult to navigate.3 Still, there were plenty of empty seats, especially in the lower bowl, as tip-off approached on Friday night. More apparent were the traveling or expat Boston fans. Blitzed die-hards wearing Kevin McHale throwbacks and teenage girls sporting Abby Wambach–style headbands, holding signs proposing marriage to Rondo.
Perhaps the problem was an innate knowledge that the Sixers, as presently constituted, are simultaneously a work in progress and a team with a clock that's winding down. Iguodala, signed through the 2013-14 season, has been offered to half the teams in the NBA as trade bait. Starting center Spencer Hawes, often referred to, derisively, as "European" on sports radio, despite being a conservative from the Pacific Northwest, can walk at the end of the season — and by drafting Nikola Vucevic last summer, it looks like they're prepared to let him. Lou Williams will also be hard to keep — with a player option for $6.3 million, he will almost certainly opt out and test free agency. Bench guys Jodie Meeks, Sam Young, and Tony Battie are also free agents at the end of the season.
The other reality is that sometimes you can love something too much. In Collins, they have a coach who feels so deeply for his players that he dies with every turnover and is reborn with every offensive rebound. This makes for great copy, and you'd love to spend a night hearing Collins talk basketball. But you can see why it would be hard to play for him after a while. There were rumors that Thad Young and Evan Turner bristled under Collins's demands. They made the playoffs almost despite themselves and advanced past a Chicago team without its best offensive and defensive players. As Kate Fagan wrote during the Sixers' swoon in the second half of the season4 that nearly saw them miss the playoffs entirely: "On more than one occasion, players have let Collins know — during a game — that they're sick of the relentless nitpicking."
There wasn't a lot to nitpick from Game 3. They got annihilated by a better team. Game 4 didn't start much better. Some highlights from my notes include: "Celts open with 9-0 run"; "Pierce hits a 3 from the same spot he made 11 straight at during shootaround"; "14-0"; "Ryan Hollins and Keyon Dooling just made a baby on the sideline"; "18-3."
I would give you more detailed lowlights, but, to be honest, I spent much of the first two and a half quarters watching Celtics fans stunt on the home crowd in their own building while the Sixers' team field goal percentage hovered between 14 and 18 percent.
Lou Williams would describe what happened in the second half as a blur. The thing is, it wasn't. It was deliberate, it felt slow, you saw it as it was happening. The Celtics' lead shrank in the third quarter just as the Sixers' field goal percentage dropped in the first half, point by aching point. The Sixers outscored the Celtics 28-17, nine of which came from Williams. When he let go of a 3 with 4:44 remaining in the quarter, from about 25 feet, it was the kind of shot that seems to wait in the air while everyone in the building realizes that, if it goes down, the roof comes off. It ripped the net, cutting the Celtics' lead to 5.
Over the last couple of weeks, there's been a lot of talk about Hero Ball and closers and what clutch means. I didn't see a lot of that on Friday, though Williams and Iguodala both made huge baskets when they were needed. I did, however, see some Villain Ball.
By all known metrics, Turner had a bad night. He went an astounding 5-22 from the field. Still, despite that performance, no Sixers player logged more minutes over Games 3 and 4 than Turner, and no Sixers player made the crowd gasp the way Turner did.
He tries stuff. Especially on Friday, with Avery Bradley on the bench with foul trouble and out of his face, Turner was constantly attacking, constantly looking — not for the extra pass, but the interesting pass. But there was more than that. The former no. 2 overall pick has had a stop-and-start two-season stint with the Sixers. Drafted ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, he seems, frankly, soft out on the court. And on Wednesday it looked like Kevin Garnett was going to shave truffles on him and have him for dinner.
But Friday, something was different. There he was, in the first quarter, staring down Ryan Hollins (who happened to have his forearm on Turner's throat at the time), there he was jumping in when Williams was getting barked at by Paul Pierce and KG on the foul line. And there he was, after he lobbed Iguodala an alley-oop, staring down Pierce. Turner could not hit the broad side of a barn in Game 4, but, to steal a phrase from soccer, he was playing for the shirt. Boston wasn't going to come in and boss the court with them for two nights. Not in Philly. Not again. If he couldn't contribute with buckets, he was going to do everything else he could to make sure the team won. When the horn blew, the Sixers winning the game 93-82, Turner threw the ball into the air with joy.
Like Turner, the Sixers got another huge — if difficult to calculate — performance from Lavoy Allen. This Trenton native and Temple University product, drafted 50th last summer, scored eight and pulled down 10 boards on Friday. But he had as much to do with the Sixers' improbable comeback as Iguodala or Williams did. Allen locked up the previously dominant Garnett, holding the Celtics big man to a quiet nine points.
"I'm not surprised, man," Thad Young said after the game. "Lavoy is a big boy." But bigger men have tried and failed to stop Garnett. Allen's edge was that he clearly did not mind who he was guarding, he just knew he had to stop him.
After the game, with his grandchildren at his side, Collins simply marveled at what Allen had done, almost in spite of his teachings. "My goal in life is to have one Lavoy Allen day. Just one. Just give me one. Just not give a shit about anything."
Fat chance of that happening.