PHILADELPHIA — Doug Collins was full of nervous energy — standing, pacing the sideline, shouting instructions. He applauded good plays, and greeted his players with slaps on the back when they returned to the bench. But mistakes were not tolerated and were greeted sternly, with a harsh, corrective tone.
The game in question? The first preseason game of the year, in which Collins' Philadelphia 76ers were leading the Washington Wizards, a team he once coached, by 30 points. For the intense and passionate Collins, one game is the same as any other.
"From our standpoint, we sort of focus every game the same way," Collins said after a recent morning shootaround before his 76ers faced the Miami Heat. "I've never seen our guys say 'Boy, this is a bigger game than another game.' I just have not seen that. I just know when you play the elite teams, when they play a game that they're not happy with, they have another gear."
The 76ers are not in that elite category just yet, but if they are to get there, they couldn't do much better than to have Collins at the helm.
Longtime basketball fans remember Collins as a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic basketball team, then as a four-time All-Star with the 76ers, for whom he played from 1973 through '81.
"He was always a good player," said Hall of Famer Earl Monroe, who played against Collins for five seasons. "He was very hyper all the time, but he was a guy who could really play. He was tough."
Collins began his coaching career with the Chicago Bulls in 1986 and also coached the Detroit Pistons and the Wizards before taking the 76ers job last season. In between coaching stints, Collins was an NBA analyst for NBC and Turner Sports.
"I was surprised at first that he took the 76ers job, but he's doing an excellent job with that team," Monroe said. "I don't think they're a championship-quality team, but I think that they're pointed in the right direction. He seems pretty passionate about coaching and passionate about his players, and guys want to play for him."
Last season, the 76ers were 41-41, finished seventh in the Eastern Conference, and lost to the Heat in the first round. This season, the 76ers lead the Atlantic Division, are fourth in the Eastern Conference, and are set to host a first-round series if they can hang on to their seeding.
Collins described his team as one without a lot of superstar power that can change gears on any given night, which makes his team-first approach so important.
"I think we play the best we can play most every night," Collins said. "We don't say 'Let's crank it up another notch tonight.' That's not the kind of team we are."
Collins said he's looking forward to the end of this lockout-shortened regular season and that the playoffs actually will be a little bit easier than what his guys are going through right now.
"You get more rest [during the playoffs]," Collins said. "You don't have back-to-backs, you don't have the grind of the regular season, it becomes a whole different ballgame. That's why you see normally in the NBA in a seven-game series, the best team usually wins unless something happens, simply because of all the dynamics of being in the playoffs."
As he prepared his team to face the Heat on the first night of a back-to-back, Collins smiled when asked if he was thinking about a future playoff matchup with the Big Three from South Beach for a second straight year.
"I hope not," Collins said with a laugh. "Unless it's the second round. If it is, it means we didn't win the Atlantic Division, we're down at seven or eight. So I'd rather not have that happen."
In addition to his team-first approach, Collins is known for being a superior teacher of the game, with a hands-on, vocal coaching style that allows him to connect with his players. Along with that, he preaches mental toughness. His message seems to be working.
"In the NBA, one thing you find out after you've been in the league for a while, very seldom do you ever feel 100 percent for a game," Collins said. "If you ask Dwyane Wade and LeBron James and Chris Bosh right now before a game how do they feel, something's hurting. What the great players do is they have an incredible mental capacity to fight through that.
"I was with the best in Michael Jordan. I saw this guy, and you would think he had nothing left, and he'd go out and get 50 points. It's just the mental ability to fight through the grind."
If there is any knock on Collins, it's that his level of intensity can ultimately cause burnout - for him and his players.
"Sometimes, we think he's a little bit too passionate," 76ers forward Thaddeus Young said. "In some games, he'll be looking like he's about to cry if we lose. But that comes with the package. That's what makes us play harder and go out there and win. I love playing for him. He's one of the best coaches in the world."
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