THERE WAS A plain white piece of paper that had some scribble on it that proved to be an important part of the 76ers' practice Tuesday at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. On it, coach Doug Collins had written the records of Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Indiana, the Lakers and Denver. The point was that he wanted his team to realize that at 12-9, they had more wins than those clubs.
The reason for their success thus far is really quite simple and in stark contrast to their inabilities last year. The Sixers are finding ways to win close games, having gone 8-2 this season in games decided by seven points or fewer.
At one point late last season, the Sixers had 21 games decided by seven or fewer, and they had won just three. Then, with just four games left in the season and needing wins to secure a playoff spot, they went into Indiana and took a tough Pacers team into overtime, eventually pulling out a 109-106, overtime win. Including that win and the rest of the regular season, the ensuing playoffs and this season, the Sixers have gone 17-3 in games decided by that seven-or-fewer margin.
When a big basket was needed last season, the feeling among fans - and maybe even players - wasn't who was going to take it, but who was going to miss it.
Times appear to have changed. While there still isn't one go-to player who has been appointed by Collins, many have proved their ability to close out a game. In Friday's overtime win against Boston, it was Evan Turner. In Monday's 104-97 win over Detroit, it was Jrue Holiday hitting a key shot down the stretch to stop some major bleeding, started by him when he missed a pair of free throws when the team was holding a three-point lead.
"I think we're growing," Collins said. "Every team would always say that they would like the ultimate closer. Do you want Michael Jordan or a committee? Do you want Mariano Rivera or four short relievers? You want somebody that's going to slam the door. What we're trying to do is trying to develop that. The thing I love is [Monday] Jrue missed the two free throws and then came back and buried that jump shot, and that to me was fantastic. They have to feel a sense of failure before they can have that kind of success."
Last season was the failure, so far this season is the success. In Holiday and Turner and Thaddeus Young, the organization has a core group that is not only helping to win close games now but will be the nucleus of the future.
"I'm pretty comfortable [taking shots late in close games] and I know Jrue is comfortable, as well," said Turner, who has scored in double figures in each of his last 13 games and averaged more than 40 minutes over the past six. "Coach has put a lot of responsibility on us and Jrue and myself have a lot of confidence in each other. At the end of the game we just get into the flow of it and you don't want to let your teammates down."
As much as Turner and Holiday now believe in themselves, that would never come unless they had the green light from their coach.
"That's huge when the coach has confidence in you," Turner said, "and when he's setting up plays for you and then you get to go to work. You don't want to let him down or the team."
And as Collins' confidence has grown in his players, theirs has grown in each other.
"We've always had faith in those guys," Collins said, "and now that they know they have that responsibility night in and night out, I think that gives them confidence and that gives us confidence in them."
What a difference a year makes so far.