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Miami series valuable for Sixers

MIAMI - It was worth it. I can't stop the pessimists from looking at the Sixers' 97-91 loss to the Miami Heat last night from saying a five-game playoff appearance is meaningless.

MIAMI - It was worth it.

I can't stop the pessimists from looking at the Sixers' 97-91 loss to the Miami Heat last night from saying a five-game playoff appearance is meaningless.

I won't try to convince them this franchise is in a far different place from 2 years ago when it finished with an identical 41-41 record and lost in the first round to the Orlando Magic in six games.

Because, honestly, if you can look at the Sixers, the growth they've showed this season, the way they competed against the Heat and still believe this organization has no hope, no argument will change your mind.

"If you're a franchise that is trying to put a Band-Aid on it and keep it in the playoffs every year to make it look like you are trying to compete every year, I can understand the cynicism," Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "But for us to do that this year, our guys are going to grow exponentially from that.

"Just the feeling of getting ready for playoff games, of seeing me trying to get them into better positions and make adjustments between games. It was fabulous."

The Sixers lost last night, but they also played their best game of the series.

In fact, except for Game 2, each effort by the Sixers was better than the previous one.

The Sixers were not going to beat the Heat in a seven-game series. The disparity in talent was simply too great.

But the Sixers were a lot closer to the Heat last night than when this series started.

Miami led, 81-71, with a little less than 9 minutes remaining. It looked as if the Heat had absorbed the Sixers' best shot and was finally ready to move into the next round.

But for the umpteenth time, the Sixers picked themselves up and fought back. A 17-9 run pulled the Sixers to 90-88, and, with a little more than 1 minute left, rookie Evan Turner had running jumper down the baseline that went halfway down before popping out.

With 16.8 seconds left and the Sixers down, 92-91, Jodie Meeks had the presence of mind to foul Miami's Joel Anthony rather than concede a layup. Credit Anthony, a 64.4 percent free throw shooter, for making both.

For Turner to have the confidence to take a huge shot at a critical time; for Meeks to commit a heady professional foul; for young Jrue Holiday and Thaddeus Young to show all kinds of toughness throughout the series meant the playoffs were anything but a waste of time for the Sixers.

"The Heat was an incredibly tough opponent for us," Collins said, "but playing Miami was probably the best thing for us, for what we faced with their star power. I don't know of any team that has three guys [LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh] that can cause the problems those three can.

"Except for Game 2, we were right there with 1 1/2 minutes to go in every game."

The Sixers are a work in progress. In a lot of ways, this entire season was about finding about which players were the ones Collins wants to move forward with and which ones will move on.

"I think quietly, [the Sixers'] management has put together a talented, young team that has an incredibly bright future going ahead," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "A lot of those guys are still kids. Sometimes you have to remind yourself how young they are.

"They play at such an extreme pace, speed, quickness that you don't see in the NBA every night."

Team president Rod Thorn spent an entire season evaluating this roster. The playoffs were another important tool.

There will be changes, probably, a few significant ones.

Thorn built the New Jersey Nets into a franchise that made two NBA Finals. You have to trust he knows what he's doing.

"Teams are never the same the next year," Collins said. "I told the guys to appreciate being together for the last 8 months, because some of the guys won't be in the room next year."

But the most important ones will be. And for them, experiencing these playoffs was anything but a waste of time. *

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