IN THE MOMENT, Doug Collins could not stop smiling.

For the second straight season, Collins had coached an achingly young team without a star into the playoffs, with two regular-season games to spare.

In retrospect, perhaps in a week or 2, that joy will have worn off. The Sixers will have been dispatched from the playoffs for a second straight season, probably without much of a problem. Chicago and Miami are that much better.

Then, Collins will reflect on what really happened this season . . . or, more to the point, what did not happen.

A year later, are the Sixers better? Really?

On Monday night, after the Sixers clinched the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, Collins said this about the 2011-12 campaign and its challenges:

"What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about your team?"

Sadly, very little. Especially about the three cornerstone first-round picks.

You know that Evan Turner, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, now can hit a midrange jump shot . . . but will he ever be a legitimate shooting guard? Can he consistently hit a three-point shot? He was 14-for-44 last season; 10-for-44 this season. That kept him out of the starting lineup behind overachiever Jodie Meeks.

You know that Thaddeus Young can get as hot as a welder's gun . . . but can he stay focused enough to keep getting open shots? Can he develop a steady post-up game and have the offense run though him? Can he find his man on every shot and box him out? Is he a tall small forward or a quick power forward?

The 12th overall pick in 2007, the Sixers gave Young a 5-year, $43 million contract extension in December. He then started just one game this season - the same as last season, Collins' first as head coach. Young scored 12.8 points and pulled 5.2 rebounds, almost a copy of his previous season. What did you learn about Thad?

Less, probably, than you learned about point guard Jrue Holiday. He remained unflappable through Collins' crazy experiments: starting Turner at point guard, letting Andre Iguodala run the offense as a point-forward, getting torched by opposing point guards as teammates failed to help out on endless pick-and-rolls.

Holiday, the 17th overall pick in 2009, this season shot a little more, scored a little less, saw his assists dip by 30 percent . . . but, through it all, he finally became the man who runs things. As a rookie, Holiday's development was stymied by the signing of sideshow Allen Iverson. Last season ended with the Sixers hoping Holiday would become the team's face, and the team's voice, and the team's MVP.

Maybe he would be all of those had this been an ordinary season. Instead, the condensed, 66-game version resulting from the labor strife essentially cost Holiday a vital year of development.

It's kind of funny: Holiday admired Iverson, but he does not shares the Answer's aversion to rehearsal.

"Practice would have helped. Get a better feel for the game," Holiday said. "Sometimes, when you have a bad game, you get it back in practice. Having time off and having practice, being able to work on things, would have helped."

Unfortunately for the Sixers, who hired Collins to mold the seven players in the rotation with fewer than 4 full years of experience, the team had two satisfactory practice sessions all season.

Two.

They usually would have two productive practices per week.

So, instead of putting his arm around a kid on the private floor at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Collins found himself hollering at a kid in front of 20,000 paying experts.

"Your young guys suffer the most when you don't get that practice time. That's when you build those relationships. That's when you get out on the floor and teach, spend time with them, talk strategy with them," Collins said. "A guy can come down the floor and take a bad shot and you can stop the scrimmage and say, 'That's not a good shot.' In a game, you have to monitor that stuff."

Collins' lament is not unique, but it is valid. He put aside his TV headset after 7 years to create something in Philadelphia, his NBA cradle.

"As a coach, that's what I love to do: I love to teach. I think that's my strength," Collins said. "I think I was hamstrung."

Which brings the Sixers to this weekend. What good, if any, can come of another quick playoff exit?

"We pooh-pooh this about being in the playoffs. A lot of teams are going to go home," Collins said. "This is something we want to establish: That we want to do this every year. We want to be a team on the rise. The gap has been narrowed a little bit."

Perhaps, but less because of the Sixers' progress than other teams' problems.

An aging, doomed Boston team won the Atlantic. There is a soulless deposit of talent in Atlanta. There is a bad chemistry project in New York. There is a poorly written soap opera in Orlando.

Certainly, the Sixers did not close any gap with Chicago, Miami and Indiana.

And any contention of progress easily can be challenged with this:

After a 20-9 start, secured with frenetic, synchronized defense and the legs of youth, the Sixers have gone 14-21. Other teams figured out their own defensive schemes and discovered the Sixers have no real halfcourt option, and that was that.

Yes, the Sixers have won three straight. They have knocked the Bucks out of playoff contention. They play them tonight, a game more meaningful for the Sixers than for the Bucks, though the Sixers will rest key players.

Those players have earned it, even if they miss a shot at the No. 7 seed. After all, 2 weeks ago reports had the team fractured, deaf to Collins' coaching, an unsalvageable mess.

Wrong.

"The guys have really, really come back strong," Collins said. "Adversity can send you south or it can forge you together."

Can it make them tough enough to put together a respectable playoff appearance? Is simply making the playoffs enough?

"I think our team has grown," Collins said. "And I'm very proud of them."

Which, of course, comes before the fall . . . or, in this case, the status quo.

Contact Marcus Hayes at hayesm@phillynews.