With Boston or Miami looming on the horizon, there are those who believe that the Philadelphia 76ers trip to the postseason will be a short one.
And then there are those who have been paying attention these past four months.
Since their abysmal 3-13 start, Philadelphia has been one of the hottest teams in the NBA, going 37-24 over its past 61 games. The 76ers' success has been a total team effort - they've locked up a spot in the playoffs despite the fact that no one on their roster is averaging 15 points per game this season.
With momentum on their side - and Doug Collins at the helm - the Philadelphia 76ers are going to be a much tougher out than many people expect. Here are 10 reasons why the 76ers could shock the world and pull off an upset in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
It almost goes without saying, but 76ers head coach Doug Collins is the primary reason for the team's resurgence this year.
Collins is the perfect leader for this unique collection of talent - he guides the team's young stars with a nurturing hand, while simultaneously allowing his veterans (Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, most notably) to flourish in positions where they can best help the team. Unlike the situation down in South Beach with Heat head coach Erik Spolestra, this 76ers team has fully embraced Collins' philosophy, and is ready to do what he asks at a moment's notice.
Meanwhile, up in Boston, many players in the Celtics rotation are still figuring out what roles Doc Rivers wants them to play - not surprising since 10 of the 15 players on the roster weren't there when the team made the NBA Finals last summer.
So despite having the shortest tenure with his current team, Doug Collins may be in the best position to lead his charges to a first-round series victory.
The 6'6" Iguodala is a ferocious defender who can guard multiple positions extremely well - a trait that will earn him quite a few votes for the All-NBA Defensive Team at the end of the season.
Iguodala has historically been a thorn in the side of Miami's LeBron James, and the 2010-11 season has been no exception. When they've faced off this year, Iguodala has held James to 22.7 points per game (nearly 4 points below his average), and has pressured the self-proclaimed "Chosen One" to the tune of 15 turnovers in three games.
As fellow Atlantic Division foes, Iguodala and the Celtics' Paul Pierce have squared off a number of times during their careers, with Iguodala getting the best of the Boston forward more often than not. In four games against the 76ers this season, Pierce has scored only 12.5 points per game, far below his season average of 18.8.
Most importantly, Iguodala's recent shift to the point-forward role on offense should allow him to be more active defensively. Unlike James and Pierce, he won't be asked to carry the load on both ends of the floor in the playoffs.
The 76ers roster is loaded with athletes who can - and quite often do - play a variety of positions. This gives Doug Collins a great deal of flexibility with his rotations since most of his players aren't relegated to a single role.
In addition to Iguodala, Lou Williams and Evan Turner are quick and long enough to stay with most perimeter players in the league. Andres Nocioni and Thaddeus Young often play and defend both forward positions, and Elton Brand and Marreese Speights are solid contributors at both the 4 and 5 spots.
Young, for example, would be a more-than-capable option against either the Heat's LeBron James or Chris Bosh. Against Boston, he could hold his own against Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Jeff Green, depending on the situation.
Instead of reacting to what their first-round opponent does, Philadelphia can be the ones dictating the action, forcing either Miami or Boston to adjust their game plans to deal with the 76ers' seemingly limitless lineup configurations.
Philadelphia is one of the rare teams that isn't completely reliant on its starters to carry the load on offense. As of April 4, the 76ers bench ranked third in the NBA in scoring with 39.6 points per game.
Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young - the first two reserves in Doug Collins' rotation - are second and third respectively among NBA bench players in total points, rebounds and assists (the Mavericks' Jason Terry ranks first).
While Miami and Boston may have more talented starting lineups, neither team gets nearly the same production from their bench as the 76ers do. In a seven-game series, one or two games could very well be decided by the play of the reserves, an aspect of the game where Philadelphia will enjoy an edge regardless of who they face in the opening round.
The 76ers' second unit of Lou Williams, Evan Turner, Andres Nocioni, Thaddeus Young and Marreese Speights is as solid as any reserve group in the NBA. Doug Collins' ability to go 10 players deep into his rotation will be an invaluable asset come playoff time - an asset many other teams can't claim.
Miami's bench is notoriously thin - so much so, that they're thinking of acquiring free agent Eddy Curry as a stop-gap measure at center. Their top bench players - Mike Miller, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, James Jones and Mario Chalmers - are decent, but they aren't a group that would give the 76ers fits in a playoff series.
The Celtics bench isn't much better, especially with Shaquille O'Neal battling injuries for the better part of the season. Center woes aside, Boston's backcourt reserves - Delonte West, Von Wafer and Carlos Arroyo - can't compete with the options that Doug Collins has off of the bench, provided that Lou Williams is healthy for the 76ers' playoff run.
With more than half of their roster under the age of 25, Philadelphia will have several young, athletic players at its disposal in a first-round matchup against a more veteran team, whether it be the Miami Heat or the Boston Celtics.
Although several trades have significantly reduced the average age of Boston's roster, their core group of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett isn't getting any younger. In a hypothetical first-round matchup, Allen and Pierce would be forced to spend a lot of time guarding players who are significantly younger than they are (Jodie Meeks and Andre Iguodala, respectively).
Miami's Bosh, James and Wade aren't much older than the players who are part of the 76ers youth movement, but they all have a great deal of "basketball miles" on them between regular seasons, playoffs, the Olympics and FIBA World Championship tournaments.
On any given night, if the 76ers chose to set the pace at a very high level, it would be very difficult for Boston or Miami to keep up. Doug Collins has waves of players he could use to do just that - his potential opponents don't have that luxury.
The 76ers' youth allows them to close out on the perimeter better than nearly any team in the league. For the season, the 76ers have only allowed opponents to shoot 33.7 percent from beyond the arc, good for third in the NBA.
The only two teams in the league better than the 76ers at guarding the three-point line? The Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers - the odds-on favorites to meet in the NBA Finals.
Philadelphia's stellar perimeter defense gives them an edge in most games, especially considering that
they boast a long-distance marksman of their own in shooting guard Jodie Meeks. In games this season when the 76ers have made at least as many three-pointers as their opponents did, their record is an outstanding 29-14.
Teams without much experience are usually reckless on the offensive end - that isn't the case with this Philadelphia squad.
The 76ers are fifth in NBA in turnovers at 13.1 per game - a phenomenal figure considering that many of their primary ball-handlers (Holiday and Williams, in particular) are relatively young.
Ask him and he'll likely tell you: turnovers are the bane of Doug Collins' existence. Over the course of this season alone, he's frequently pulled players from the game when they've been careless with the basketball.
Against a more talented team - which the Heat and the Celtics both are - the 76ers' primary goal will be to minimize mistakes. Considering the fact that they've already displayed a knack for doing so in the regular season, they should have no problem carrying that over to the playoffs.
With a playoff berth already locked up, and with their best regular season in recent memory, the 76ers are playing with the proverbial "house money" at this point. The same can't be said for their two most likely playoff opponents.
The window of opportunity is closing quickly for the Boston Celtics - their "Big 3" of Pierce, Garnett and Allen don't have many more years left together as a unit, and are pushing exceptionally harder this season following the recent trade of Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
No team in the NBA has more at stake this postseason than the Miami Heat - a circumstance which they basically brought upon themselves. Their virtually no-win situation was born in the aftermath of LeBron James' now-infamous "not one, not two, not three..." boast shortly after he, Bosh and Wade signed with the Heat this summer.
Short of an embarrassing four-game first-round exit, anything that the Sixers accomplish for the rest of the year will be seen as a success. Without the same baggage as the Celtics and the Heat, the 76ers enter the postseason with far less pressure, which will allow them to play their game without the burden of great expectations.
Solid point guard play and success in the playoffs are virtually intertwined - it is extremely difficult to make any noise in the postseason without a capable floor general. Fortunately for the 76ers, they have one of the best young lead guards in the NBA in Jrue Holiday.
Under the tutelage of Collins and assistant coach Aaron McKie, Holiday is enjoying a stellar sophomore season, averaging 13.9 points, 6.4 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game.
Statistics aside, Holiday is the catalyst of a 76ers offense that is 6th-best in the NBA at 22.8 assists per game. Even more impressive is the team's 1.73 assist-to-turnover ratio, second in the NBA.
While not quite on the level of Boston's Rajon Rondo, Holiday is a far better point guard than any of Miami's options at the 1, and provides the steady hand that the 76ers need as they attempt to knock off one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.