Backs to the wall with only four games to go

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather - BY STEPHEN WHYNO

BOS­TON| Karl Alzner is right. There have been a lot of third pe­ri­ods this year when the Washington Cap­i­tals were able to make it look like that game was the most im­por­tant one they ever played.

Now, with a play­off berth on the line in the final four games, that has to be a con­stant.

“We’re go­ing to have to be a des­per­ate hockey team, ev­ery sin­gle sec­ond of ev­ery game,” the de­fense­man said. “It’s go­ing to start right from the drop of the puck. And I just hope we can carry it out for the full 60 min­utes.”

Des­per­ate bet­ter de­scribe the Caps down the stretch, as an in­con­sis­tent sea­son has put them on the fringe of the play­off picture. As much as Dale Hunter has stressed play­off hockey, it’s hard to drum up that kind of in­ten­sity in Fe­bru­ary and early March, but right now it’s the way it has to be.

“We’ve got to do what­ever it takes to win hockey games, whether it’s block­ing shots or any of those lit­tle in­tan­gi­bles

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-to­back, 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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