Tucked right between a three-game road trip and a four-game road trip is one game at the WFC for the Sixers, against the defending champs. The Mavs started slowly, but they'll bring a five-game win streak along with them tonight. The Sixers have their work cut out for them in their first national game of the season.
I'm fighting off a nasty bout of bronchitis, so this is going to have to be short and sweet before I pass out again.
I won't get into the particulars of tonight's game, the x's and o's, because I think those things kind of take a back seat for the time being. The Sixers are on a ledge right now. They've got 20 in the win column to only 10 on the opposite down side. They still sport the league's #1 defense and #8 offense. They've still only lost one game to a sub-.500 team the entire season (the Knicks are .500 now). They've taken great care to win every game they "should" win, usually by a comfortable margin, and they're around .500 against the better teams in the league. That's the good news.
The bad news is they haven't looked like themselves in 3 of the past five games (loss to SAS, win @ CHA, loss @ ORL), and they've dropped three straight to playoff teams (SAS, LAC, @ ORL). They've also dropped two straight at home. A win tonight against the Mavs would go a long way toward quieting the voice in the back of my head. The voice that's constantly asking, "Is the other shoe about to drop?"
The off day spent trying to rest gave me a lot of time to think about the current state of affairs for the Sixers, and maybe take a step back. It's not that hard to put your finger on why the Sixers have been so successful this season. They take care of the ball, they pressure the ball, they rotate, they play as a team, they share the ball, they make the extra pass, opposing defenses can't key on one guy. Whatever they're doing, it's working. But the success has been masking a glaring weakness, an achilles heel (sorry, bad pun given what I'm talking about). Right now, the Sixers rotation at the five consists of the #16 pick in last year's draft, a second-round pick in last year's draft, and a 33-year-old power forward who alternates games between grizzled veteran providing interior defense and completely gassed old man providing nothing. That's it. Those three guys have done a great job of filling the hole in the middle to this point, but can it last? Can it possibly last? Hawes is going to be out until at least after the All Star break, but is he really the missing piece in the middle? If he plays like he did for the first 10 games of the season or so, then yes, but if he plays like he did in the previous 293 games of his career (or the few games when he tried to get back on the floor), he's simply another warm body contributing to the problem.
If you look back at the games in which the Sixers have played poorly, prior to the Orlando game, which can probably be put more on the smalls than the bigs, the Sixers have had trouble with teams who decide to exploit them on the inside. Whether it's rebounding, or driving the lane where there's no help, or mercilessly attacking them with the pick-and-roll, they've found a way to put the onus on the Sixer bigs and they've had success doing it.
This brings us back to tonight's game. I'm sure I just made the Sixers' cause sound hopeless, and I'm in a bit of a morose mood, but they have still won 20 games. They do still have the best defense in the league, they have beaten the best teams in the league, and beaten them handily, and they can beat the Mavs. Sometimes it's better not to take a step back and ask "how" but instead to enjoy the ride. Even in this successful season, the Sixers have seemed dead in the water. In certain games, and even over a stretch of games. Then, out of nowhere, they seem to collectively come to life. They live off each other's hustle and energy, they swarm on defense to the point where it doesn't much matter who's playing the five. They've had this ability to pull together against tough odds and overcome whoever is in front of them. At their best, they make you forget about who they're playing. You can't even remember a single player on the other team as having an impact on the game. The aggregate of the Sixers overcomes the excellence of one or two players on the other team.
It's a great story line, and it's also the type of thing that builds on itself. The type of thing that they can do because they've done it before, because it's familiar to them. This is why tonight's game is so big, in my mind. Since the Lakers win, they've really looked like the Sixers of 2010-2011. That's not necessarily a bad thing. They can probably play like last year's version of themselves and still win the Atlantic, still get a top-five seed and maybe even win a round in the playoffs, but their aspirations and really our expectations have risen beyond that level. The 2011-2012 Sixers would come out tonight and take care of the Mavs in a demonstrative fashion. They'd exert their will and use their youth to run circles around the Mavs and make Dirk Nowitzki a footnote in their story of another big win over a playoff team.
A loss tonight, well, it might just shed a little more light on the elephant in the room. And once that elephant is out there for everyone to see, Rod Thorn is going to have to decide if he's going to address the issue this season, or let it fester.
Obviously, this is a pessimistic way of viewing the last half-dozen games. You could just easily see the Sixers running into a San Antonio buzz saw that's continued to dominate after leaving Philly, then being a fingernail away from blocking a Chris Paul jumper from beating the clips, then a dominant win over the Cavs on the road, then a lethargic win over the Bobcats, but a 9-point win nonetheless, and finally a loss on the road to an insanely hot-shooting Orlando team. I'll be happy to look at things that way if the Sixers can put up a W tonight against Dirk and Co.
The tip is at 8pm, on ESPN tonight. Game thread will land at 6pm or so.