- Associated Press - Monday, February 28, 2011

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - The Philadelphia 76ers were 3-13 and another lost season appeared on the horizon.

Doug Collins could not let a total collapse happen.

He wasn’t hired to let the Sixers plod through another year where the only highlight would be a high lottery pick. He called them together and offered the type of scouting report he might have unleashed if he was still a TNT broadcaster.

Collins delivered a tough-love sermon that might have surprised more than a few Sixers who had grown comfortable in a losing environment.

“When we were 3-13, we could have hung our heads and guys could have went their separate ways. He wouldn’t let us,” forward Elton Brand said. “He called guys out, which might not have happened in the past. He straight-up called them out. He said names. To their faces. In front of the team.”

Look at the Sixers now _ an improbable 30-29 and playing with a belief they can beat any top team in the NBA.

When Collins calls out his players these days, it’s to heap praise on his surging squad that has grown from thinking they can make the playoffs to believing they can win a first-round series.

In a league where superstars and super teams rule, they’ve proved 12 talented players working hard and working together can win.

“I wanted us to be relevant again. We are,” Collins said. “I want us to be more than relevant. I want us to be really good. I wanted people in the NBA talking about us, which they are.”

The Sixers have won a season-high four consecutive games entering Tuesday’s game against Dallas (43-16). In November, a game against the Mavericks would have been considered an automatic loss. Not anymore.

Consider this final against Western Conference-leading San Antonio from Feb. 11: 76ers 77, Spurs 71.

The numbers don’t lie.

The Sixers are 27-16 since Nov. 26, and are tied for the seventh-highest winning percentage (.628) of any team in the league over that span.

Philadelphia is above .500 for the first time since it was 3-2 in 2009-10. The Sixers have won 13 of their past 17 games, including six of the past seven.

“We can’t get caught up in the numbers,” swingman Andre Iguodala said. “We’re playing well right now. We can’t get too happy and relax.”

The Sixers are trying to accomplish a rare feat in a league where the good teams and bad ones have usually shaken out by Thanksgiving.

The last time an NBA team was 10 games or below .500 and finished with a winning record was in the 2004-05 season.

The New Jersey Nets were 16-26 through games of Jan. 27, 2005 and finished 42-40. In that same season, the Chicago Bulls were 5-15 through games of Dec. 15, 2004 and finished the season 47-35, according to STATS LLC.

“We didn’t say, ‘Woe is me, woe is us. We stink. Another dismal year,’” Brand said. “No, we played hard and got better.”

Brand has rediscovered his old double-double form (and his happiness) and sparked the resurgence into seventh place in the Eastern Conference, just a game behind the retooled New York Knicks. He leads the team with averages of 15.3 points and 8.8 rebounds, and is shooting 55 percent from the field since January.

Iguodala has developed into a well-rounded, triple-double threat, and reserves like Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams are winning games late in the fourth quarter.

Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner have erased various dry spells to prove they can be the backcourt of the future, and make deep postseason runs more of a reality.

They beat the teams they’re supposed to beat _ sub.-500 ones like Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, Charlotte _ since January, while knocking off winning teams like the Spurs, Utah, Chicago, and Phoenix. They went 9-3 in February (.750) for their third straight winning month. The winning percentage was Philadelphia’s highest in a single month since February 2003 (8-2, .800).

As much as the numbers sparkle, the Sixers credit Collins for the revival

“If we lose a game, it’s not coach Collins‘ fault,” Young said. “It’s not his fault we were 3-13. It was definitely our fault. He’s prepared, he motivates us. That’s what we love about him, his intensity, his love and his passion for the game.”

Collins has the Sixers wanting more over the remaining seven weeks. He wants them to catch the Knicks (they play once more on April 6) and lock them into a more favorable playoff series, like vs. the Bulls.

The growing crowds have been livelier, and the locker room is a fun place for the players to hang after a game. Maybe they can’t win an NBA title this year, but they have made this season matter.

“I wanted my team to have fun,” Collins said, “and they’re doing that.”

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