Cleveland shocked the world in their opener. First, the mighty Celtics downed LeBron James and his Miami Heat. Then the LeBron-less Cavs took down the Celtics. Dan Gilbert popped some champagne, Cleveland rejoiced. It was a fairy tale. Since that epic first game of the season, Cleveland has been pretty much what they are, a bad basketball team.
If the Sixers are going to emerge from their first ten games with a halfway decent record, the next two games truly are must wins. Tonight, they play host to the Cleveland Cavaliers (1-3), probably without Antawn Jamison. Mo Williams is expected to make his triumphant return to the starting lineup.
If there's any excitement around this Cleveland squad, it's centered on third-year PF JJ Hickson. Personally, I'm not buying the hype. Hickson's scoring has been impressive this season (.625 TS%), but his peripheral numbers have been, well, Thad-like almost. His rebounding, which was never a strength, has been worse this year (12.1% RebRate), his steals and blocks are down, turnovers are way up. Much like with Thad, if/when those scoring numbers come down a bit, his overall production won't hold up. He does get to the line quite a bit, though, so he's got a little more leeway. I was shocked to see his usage rate up around 30%, they're really running offense for him.
Byron Scott has brought a slow pace with him to Cleveland, they're one of the worst offensive teams in the league (a middling defensive team, as well). Basically, they're ripe. The Sixers have every opportunity to win this game, and a couple of guys on the Sixers should have extremely favorable matchups:
- Brand vs. Hickson/Varejao: Hickson is undersized, Brand should be able to bully him and use his old man moves without too much resistance. Sideshow Bob is a good defender, but not much of a shotblocker. Brand needs to watch for flops from Varejao, but he should still be able to get shots up over him. Look for EB to establish position on the blocks early in the shot clock often tonight, especially when Hickson is on him.
- Jrue vs. Mo Williams: Jrue has a pronounced physical advantage over this guy. Ramon Sessions is a better defender with better size, but Jrue should get plenty of time to go to work against Mo Williams. He needs to attack Williams on the offensive end, maybe even dribble him into the post, or set up down there for an entry pass. He can elevate over Mo, muscle him around near the hoop. I'm hoping to see a very physical offensive game from Jrue in this one, multiple trips to the line. On defense, all he needs to do is completely stone Williams like he did last year
- Anyone vs. Boobie Gibson: Byron Scott has been leaning on Boobie Gibson for more than 28 minutes/night. When he's in there, off the ball, Iguodala and Turner absolutely have to abuse him. He's frail, he's small, he's a poor defender. This s a huge advantage for the Sixers and they need to expose it whenever Gibson is on the floor.
If the Sixers play like they did on Wednesday night, this will be another blowout win. It's highly doubtful their best game will show up again, but a win is firmly within their grasp. Cleveland has a roster that was built to play off of LeBron James. Without LBJ, they're a disparate group of players, each with a specific skill designed to fill a specific need while LeBron's overall game took care of the big things. Now, they have very little playmaking, even less shot creation and no identity. They're ripe to be knocked off tonight, the Sixers need only to play their game, attack mismatches and avoid being careless with the basketball. Cleveland is not a team that's capable of exploiting the Sixers weakness on the inside, Brand can handle Hickson. One thing nagging at the back of my mind is keeping Varejao off the offensive glass.
Prediction: Sixers 97, Cleveland 88
The tip is at 7pm, game thread will be up at 5:30.