PHILADELPHIA – Doug Collins saw the schedule and wondered if a season teetering on the brink of rebound or collapse might buckle and collapse.
The 76ers had one final home game with the defending-champion Lakers before hitting the road for a season-high eight-game road trip. It's the kind of schedule that would give about any NBA team fits, especially one that started 3-13.
"I had some nights," Collins said, "where I was thinking I was going to be talking to (the media) with nine straight losses."
No, the lengthy losing streak never happened over that span. But a few nice wins and some players blossoming into their roles did.
Destined for the draft lottery only six weeks ago, Collins, in his first year, has the Sixers thinking about the playoffs entering Friday's game against Chicago.
They went 3-5 on the swing, a moderate success for a team that was one of the worst in the NBA last year. And they returned home to beat the Washington Wizards to nestle into a tie for the eighth seed with Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings.
"We're thinking about it," forward Thaddeus Young said. "We've got to go out there and compete every game and make sure we seal up a spot."
The Sixers rebounded from the dreadful 3-13 start to go on an 11-8 run. Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams each scored 26 points and led them to a 109-97 win on Wednesday that kept the Wizards winless on the road this season.
There's still a long season ahead, of course, and the Sixers would first like to get to .500.
But suddenly in Philadelphia, there's hope.
"This is one of the better rhythms that we've been in with this group," Williams said. "We want to continue to ride that wave and continue to play good basketball. Just bottle it up."
Even their play in recent losses gives Collins reason to believe in his team. The Sixers lost by four points each at Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers — but were thumped by 45 points Dec. 21 against the Bulls.
The Bulls loss is a performance — as Eagles coach Andy Reid likes to say — the Sixers would like to have back. But beat the Bulls on Friday, and they can truly forget about their worst loss.
And there's good news ahead. After the Bulls, the Sixers will embark on a stretch where they can pad their record against sub.-500 teams. A schedule that has Detroit, Indiana, Milwaukee and Charlotte before a Jan. 19 game at Orlando is a perfect opportunity for the Sixers to climb back toward .500 and prove they are legitimate playoff contenders.
"These are teams you want to keep below you. We're trying to get up," Collins said. "We want to keep Washington and New Jersey and Cleveland and Toronto below. We've got to try and bump somebody ahead of us out of there."
The Sixers expect to play two more games without Andre Iguodala, who has missed five straight games with Achilles' tendinitis.
Iguodala's absence has allowed rookie guard Evan Turner, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, to play an increased role and prove he's not the bust critics pegged him as only two months into the season.
Turner's two points against the Wizards was a bit of a setback after a solid stretch that saw him score 12 against the Lakers and a career-high 23 against Phoenix. The key is keeping it going when Iguodala returns.
Collins loves the Sixers' youth, camaraderie and willingness to learn as they make a playoff push. Williams is 24, Young and Turner are 22 and Holiday 20. Iguodala is 26 and Elton Brand, having a great comeback season, is 31.
The talent is there — and they playoffs are within reach.
After the Lakers loss, Collins mentioned the playoffs to the Sixers as they entered the final game of the road trip at New Orleans. He talked about the importance of a .500 trip and what it would mean to defeat a strong team like the Hornets. The Sixers lost by seven, doomed by poor shooting during the final three quarters.
Still, Collins liked the effort and the aggressiveness.
He's talking about the playoffs and, for a team that lags well behind the city's other three pro sports in popularity and success, the way to meaningful games in April is taking care of business in January.
"We know what we have ahead," Young said, "and what it means to play well coming up."