ONE TEAM teeters on the brink of elimination, which will not matter one way or another.
The other team stands on brink of validation, and that could be all the difference.
The Flyers will slink back into Philadelphia and hope to avert a Game 5 loss in their conference semifinal. But a loss tonight, or beyond, will not indicate anything besides their young players are too green for a postseason grind. The core of this group ran to the Cup finals 2 years ago. They are vetted, and they are girded.
The Sixers, on the other hand, flew into Chicago Monday eager to become what the Flyers long have been: a proven contender, capable of winning when it really matters. This is a learning process. Only experience can serve as teacher.
They have three chances at eliminating the Bulls. They want to use only one, Tuesday night, in Game 5.
"It's coming," said assistant coach Aaron McKie. "[Tuesday night] will tell me a little bit about our guys. I think we're watching them grow up. A lot.
"[Tuesday night], if we come out with that attitude of, 'Let's punch these guys in the nose early and let's go get this one,' I think that would be that turning point for them, to realize how good they really can be."
McKie went to the playoffs 10 times as a player, six times as a Sixer. He helped turn the Iverson edition from a group that was confident it could play with anyone into a downright arrogant club — a team so assured they should win that defeat disgusted them.
The Sixers need a little arrogance.
Injury eliminated guard Derrick Rose and sidelined center Joakim Noah.
The Sixers need to find their arrogance tonight.
"How we handle this next game, or these next few games, will determine how we feel about ourselves," said Elton Brand, the only Sixers regular who has won in the playoffs.
The 33-year-old Brand led the Clippers to a 4-1 first-round win over Denver in 2006, then carried the Clips to a seven-game loss to Phoenix. He averaged more than 25 points and 10 rebounds with nearly three blocks in those games.
It was his first playoff appearance, and he was a younger, healthier man. Now, he looks around him and sees a group that was happy to meet the Heat last season . . . but one determined to move forward.
"Last year, of course, against Miami, we just wanted to play well. Get a win, after we lost the first three. We did that," Brand said. "Against Chicago, we were pretty confident, even before their injuries. We're right on the cusp of being a team that feels like we can win a playoff series."
On the cusp, and fortunate to be there.
They played tentatively in the first three quarters of Game 3.
Coming back from 14 points down, even after Noah rolled his ankle, was, "A game maybe we shouldn't have gotten," Brand agreed.
They disappeared in the second and third quarters of Game 4 on Sunday.
"We were lucky to win that game [Sunday]," said coach Doug Collins. "And Game 3, as well."
Collins coached Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen into their era of significance with the Bulls.
Now, 14 years later, Collins is trying to do the same with Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. They might already be there.
"I think the reasons we won the last two games is because our guys expected to win," Collins said. He pointed to the overtime win at formidable Indiana on April 21 that continued a must-win late stretch for the Sixers. "That Indiana game — that was a huge game for our team . . .
I'm not so sure early in the year our guys had that."
It was a rare, close win. The Sixers entered that game 3-18 in games decided by seven points or fewer. All-Star forward Andre Iguodala entreated them to play with effort and intelligance.
They are 4-0 in close games since, a lesson learned:
"Leave it all on the court," said Holiday, the series' MVP so far. "Sometimes, when you do that, you get emotional and make mistakes. Dre said it best before that last Indiana game: We have to play as hard as we can, but we have to play as smart as we can, too."
They want to play hard, and they want to play smart.
That sounds swell.
There is another level.
"If you stick to your principles and if you actually do win a playoff series, your confidence level skyrockets the next series," Brand said. "It's like, 'OK, we know how to do this.' "
Without further delay, they should do it.
The Bulls have run high-mileage shooters Rip Hamilton and Carlos Boozer into the ground. Gunner guard Kyle Korver cannot get open. He seems gimpy. Omer Asik is mystified by defensive rotations, and Taj Gibson can't get out of his own way.
Unless Noah bathes in the Healing Waters of Bethesda, the Bulls remain a lamed gazelle.
The Flyers have eaten before. They know how to feed, and they will feed again.
It's the Sixers' turn to finish the hunt.
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