We've already talked about the matchups, the overall team strengths and weaknesses. Now it's time to talk about less quantifiable portions of the game and what needs to happen, in broad terms, for the Sixers to end tonight up 1-0 in the series.
There is absolutely no way the Orlando Magic aren't coming into this series overconfident. It's just not possible. They swept the Sixers in the regular season, 3-0. Every single NBA talking head who isn't an out-of-work coach angling for a job has said the Magic will win this series, and not a single one of them even has it going 7 games. Keeping his players humble has probably been Stan Van Gundy's biggest chore since the matchups were finalized.
So, how do you go about beating a team that's bought the hype, even though they haven't really earned it? Well, it's a process. Step one is showing them you aren't afraid of them. You make a statement, be it with a monster dunk right in the face of the defensive player of the year or a hard foul that says "No layups will be allowed," you let them know they're in for a brawl. Last year, Sam Dalembert took two hard fouls on McDyess early in the series, both stopped dunks and both sent that message.
Then you have to take a punch, dust yourself off, and get back up. Orlando will go on a run, that's just a fact. Maybe it's a 10-0 run, maybe it's three deep balls in a row. Being the heavy favorites, they're going to expect the Sixers to roll over and die when they exert themselves. That's when you have to dig deep and come right back at them. Let them know you're here to play, punch them right back.
Step three is playing to your strengths and exploiting their weaknesses. Orlando will be comfortable, they'll come in thinking they're going to play their nice, half-court game. Run their sets, and win the game. Well, you have to accomplish two things, mess up their rhythm and exploit a mismatch on the other side. No one was better than Larry Brown at the latter. He'd pick out the best matchup on the floor and he'd draw up plays to exploit it. I have a feeling this matchup is going to be Andre Miller in the post with Rafer Alston on him. Go to it early, go to it often, and keep going to it until Orlando is forced to change something. Force them out of their comfort zone. On offense, make Rashard Lewis a driver instead of a stand-still shooter. Make Dwight Howard play with his back to the basket. Expose Hedo and Lewis for their relative lack of athleticism. Utilize full-court pressure so they don't get into their offense until there are 14 seconds left on the shot clock. If you need to, put Reggie Evans in there and let him race around the floor for a couple of minutes, trapping everyone and anyone. Make Orlando question everything they've read in the papers over the past three days.
The final step in the process is simple. Get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win. Ask Boston, San Antonio and Portland exactly how tenuous home-court advantage can be in the first round. If you can get to those final 12 minutes either with the lead, or at least within a possession or two, all the pressure shifts to the Magic. The game is no longer a walk in the park for them. It's not about cruising to a win on their home court anymore, it's about "Wow, we could really lose this game." Apply that kind of pressure to a team with limited playoff experience and a "master of panic
" for a coach, and well, I like the Sixers chances of being the looser team down the stretch. After all, it's a lot harder to drain threes when your nerves are kicking in than it is to throw down a dunk.
If anything has been true of this Sixers team throughout the year, it's that they've played to the level of their opponent, almost without fail. They've played the best in the league better than just about anyone. They're the only team to beat Cleveland in Cleveland (yes there's an asterisk, but it's still a fact) and Los Angeles in LA. They swept their season series with Portland. And against this very same Magic team, sans Nelson, the Sixers held leads in the final two minutes of both of their losses.
No matter what the mainstream media tells you, this is going to be a series. No matter what Stan Van Gundy thinks, this game tonight is going to be a battle. With Thad back at full strength, and finally a couple of days to recharge their batteries, I think tonight is going to be a battle the Sixers will win.