We figured that at some point this season Doug Collins would arrange his pieces into a somewhat aesthetically pleasing collection.

We figured it would take many, many months and we figured that by the time it happened the 76ers would be so far out of playoff contention they wouldn't even be able to see the other playoff teams.

But what has happened instead is completely surprising: only 20 games into the season, Collins has the Sixers playing as well as they have in a year and a half.

If you'd seen Collins and his team after at least a dozen emotional losses this season - some by many points, others by heartbreakingly few - you'd have felt this team was as close to falling apart as coming together.

There was no starting lineup, no rotation, no end-of-game focus, and what appeared to be a very tenuous hold on Collins' philosophies.

Before Thursday night's near-victory over the Boston Celtics, second-year point guard Jrue Holiday discussed the team's embarrassing Dec. 3 loss at the Atlanta Hawks.

Up as many as 18 points, the Sixers lost, 93-88.

Every team has its breaking point, Holiday said - enough is enough.

But which way would the Sixers break? Would they let the tidal wave of repetitive frustration disillusion them? Or would they take a deep breath and stay the course?

Welcome to the latter.

Your new shooting guard is Jodie Meeks, not Evan Turner. Your center is an in-shape Spencer Hawes, not the earlier, weaker version of Hawes.

There's a starting lineup and there's a rotation. But if you're suddenly considering boarding this bandwagon, here are two of the remaining obstacles: finding an end-of-game option and navigating the next three weeks.

The Celtics don't need a designated option for a last-second shot. They can enter a pressure-packed time-out and collectively create the perfect play. The Sixers have seen this time and again from Boston: a flare screen for Ray Allen, a clear-out for Paul Pierce, a pick-and-roll with Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett.

The Sixers don't have the veteran presence and basketball IQ to execute these varied types of plays with the crowd on its feet and only seconds on the clock. What they do have are individual playmakers capable of breaking down defenders.

And they need to develop a few (no more than two or three) options that become as routine as setting up for a free throw.

On Thursday, the Sixers got back-to-back, down-the-stretch shots from Andre Iguodala, but anyone watching those plays knows they weren't high-percentage and knows that it could be months before we see the same results.

Maybe a clear-out for Lou Williams, or Meeks setting up under the rim and choosing which way to run off screens, or Elton Brand on the block - three options dependent on the opponent's defensive lineup.

If the Sixers can figure out a way to win close games, their record will quickly flip from bad to not so bad. And if the Sixers can navigate the next three weeks, they'll actually find themselves in position to snag an Eastern Conference playoff spot.

From now until Jan. 3, a game at the New Orleans Hornets, the Sixers run the gauntlet. They play 12 games, nine of them on the road, and they play mostly very good teams.

In those three weeks, there are only two games you could honestly expect the Sixers to win: at the New Jersey Nets and against the Los Angeles Clippers. If the Sixers really were to finish this crucial stretch with a record of 2-10, that would drop their overall record to 9-25 and be a kick in the gut.

A playoff berth, coming from 16 games under .500, would be about as difficult as scaling a skyscraper.

But if the Sixers can continue playing this well - on a level to beat even good NBA teams - and finish this stretch with a record of 7-5, improving their overall record to 14-20, they'll have an even better chance than those around to snag a playoff spot.

Because compared to December's schedule, which looks like a dark alley, January's schedule looks friendly and well lit.

Through training camp, it looked like it would take Collins six months to unravel the tangled knots of this roster.

His quick work, and the strong play of his team, leaves them very close to becoming relevant.

Inside the Sixers:

Read Kate Fagan's 76ers blog, "Deep Sixer," at http://go.philly.com/dsix.

Blog response of the week

Subject: A 76ers' loss worthy of a win

Posted: 3:56 p.m., Dec. 12, 2010

By philsix6

The effort was worthy of a win against most teams. Against veterans, mistakes can't be made late in the game. The Sixers will get better in those situations. Dre has to handle the ball under pressure because Jrue's not "there" yet. Perhaps, extra 1-on-2 practice sessions might help. Opponents know how to pressure Jrue late. Young is very good. He's 22, 3 months older than Turner, and just beginning to learn the intricacies of the game from these coaches and he defends much bigger guys every night. Iguodala might be traded but that won't guarantee that we'll improve immediately. Do we get draft choices or bigs? Who's going to be our lock-down defender? Let's encourage the team as presently constituted and enjoy them as they improve and win and get a playoff spot. Playoffs? Playoffs? Did I say playoffs?

Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or kfagan@phillynews.com.