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A Test In Atlanta

This isn't quite a mid term. Atlanta is a solid playoff team, but their missing their most-overpaid best player. So consider this game as just a pop quiz for the Sixers. They've beaten two playoff teams from last season in their previous six games. They've been playing much better basketball over the past three. Can they keep the momentum going in Atlanta tonight?

Way back in the second game of the season, the Sixers nearly shocked the world with an upset at home against Atlanta. Josh Smith hit a miracle three with 47 seconds left in the game to permanently put the brakes on a furious comeback by the Sixers. Iguodala scored 27 and handed out 10 assists, Lou went to the line 13 times and Brand scored an efficient 20.

Since then, Atlanta has gone 10-5, and they're currently riding a four-game win streak. They're winning on the offensive end of the floor (4th in the league in offensive efficiency), their defense is slightly below average (16th at 107.4 DFR). They play a painfully slow pace (90.6 possessions/48 minutes, 26th in the league). Your first indicator tonight may be the pace of the game. The Sixers are middle-of-the-pack at 92.8. They're also inching their way back into the top ten in defensive efficiency, tonight's game could either push them back to the middle, or elevate them into elite company.

If this team is truly going to make a push for the playoffs, they're going to have to show some consistency over a long stretch, and they're going to have to win some of the games they probably shouldn't. Tonight is a prime example.

Even without Joe Johnson, Atlanta poses some serious problems. Al Horford and Josh Smith out-class the Sixers front court in nearly every imaginable way. I expect Smith to be guarding Hawes, which means he'll be roaming free on the defensive end, looking to help and block shots. Brand should be able to work against Horford, it's the bigger defenders that give him problems, not the shorter, bulkier ones. On the other end of the floor, though, Smith and Horford will probably have their way with the Sixers. Horford scored 20 points on only 11 shots the first time these teams met, and it should've been much worse than that. The Sixers showed no signs of even being able to slow him down. If Atlanta focuses on that mismatch, the Sixers will have to double him to get the ball out of his hands. Brand has the best shot at guarding him, but he can't do it on his own and Hawes/Speights on Smith is a gross mismatch.

The good news is that the Sixers have a decided advantage on the perimeter, no matter who starts among Turner/Nocioni. If Turner is in the starting lineup, he's going to have Jamal Crawford on him. That's a huge mismatch, and hopefully one the rookie will be willing to take advantage of. If Nocioni is in the starting lineup, expect Iguodala to work out of the post with Crawford on him. Nocioni and Marvin Williams probably cancel each other out, in that case. Most importantly, though, Mike Bibby couldn't keep me in front of him at this point of his career, and Jrue is not the same player he was in the beginning of the season.

Jrue should be able to live in the lane tonight, and when he can penetrate, it opens up everything on the offensive end for the Sixers. If they want to shift Jrue off the ball, Bibby has no chance against him in the post. The perimeter guys must be the focus of the offense, and the Sixers absolutely have to punish the mismatches out there if they're going to have any chance in this game.

Prediction: Sixers 98, Atlanta 94 (first close win of the season)
Keep an eye on: Atlanta's defense. If they punish Bibby with penetration, which they should, Atlanta could fall back into a zone for long stretches. How will the Sixers perform against the zone? Also, Lou victimized Jeff Teague with his shot fakes on the perimeter the first time around, let's see if he can go back to that well.

The tip is at 7:30, game thread will be up at 6pm.