I'm not going to be so bold (and moronic) as to say the Sixers first game of the season tonight against the Raptors is a must-win. I will, however, say that I think it's crucial for this team to get off to a quick start.
The opener against a much-improved Raptors team is a perfect opportunity to send a message that all of the moves the Sixers made this offseason have made an immediate impact. A perfect chance to show that the hard work they put in over the summer, in training camp and the preseason games was enough to incorporate their new weapons and get their returning players accustomed to their new roles.
While I don't think a playoff run is impossible after a slow start (this team has been a much better team in the second half the past two seasons), I don't want it to come to that. I want the Sixers to get off on a huge run and spend the season punishing lesser teams. I want to stop the doubters in their tracks early. The Sixers shouldn't sneak up on anyone this year, they shouldn't have to. They have their low post threat, one of the best in the league. They've answered all their internal questions by locking down Iguodala and Lou Williams. The only looming question for this team is Andre Miller's status, and to be honest with you, having a 32 year-old point guard playing for a contract is not bad thing.
This team is poised, right now, to make a serious run. They've also put themselves in the position of being a contender for years to come. The only thing left to do is go out there and win games. If they do, the Wach will be packed, the city will be excited and everything will be easier for the Sixers going forward (signings like Rush, Ratliff and Marshall won't be abberations, players will want to play in Philly).
This has been a long way of saying it's finally here. The games finally count and Ed Stefanski finally gets to see his new toys on the court playing together when it matters. I've been waiting for this day since the Pistons knocked the Sixers out of the playoffs. The tension has been building and I'm not sure I'll be able to wait another 6 hours. After the jump we'll take a look at the Raptors, and what the Sixers need to do to end the night 1-0.
The Raptors rolled the dice this offseason, sending TJ Ford to the Pacers for Jermaine O'Neal. I'm sure you've read plenty of analysis about this move, how O'Neal will help Bosh by freeing him up to take easier defensive assignments etc. It's all true if O'Neal can stay healthy. That won't be an issue for them tonight, he'll be in the lineup. I assume Brand will be on Bosh with Dalembert on O'Neal, but the matchups may be more fluid than that. We'll probably see Theo get some minutes as well if their inside game is killing the Sixers.
O'Neal is a huge addition, but for me, the key to stopping this team is Jose Calderon. This guy flourished last season when Ford went down to injury, and he represents a huge headache for the Sixers. Not only is Calderon a great distributor, but he almost never turns the ball over. He makes great decisions with the ball, and you can't play off him because he's deadly from three. The best way to attack him is probably to get the ball out of his hands. If I was Mo Cheeks, I'd use pressure whenever possible, use the full court trap. The Sixers used this defense to great success last season, and I hope to see it for stretches tonight. Make Calderon work to get the Raptors into their offense, and whenever possible, make him give the ball up to Anthony Parker or Jamario Moon.
I doubt the Sixers will use the full-court press for more than a couple of minutes at a time, so in the half-court, I'd look for them to funnel Calderon to either side of the floor and trap him with either Thad or Iguodala. Those guys are both long, quick and doubling off either Moon or Parker isn't a bad idea. The Sixers have elite athletes at 4 of 5 positions on the floor. 4 guys who can make up ground, jump passing lanes and make up for mistakes with weakside help. Their personnel is probably more suited to playing this type of frenetic defense than any other in the league, it's a key to getting their running game going.
Which brings me right to the offensive side of the ball. As far as I'm conccerned, bringing Elton Brand and the shooters off the bench into the fold should not change the team's basic offensive philosophy. The Sixers are at their best when they're out running. Thad, Lou and Iguodala can beat every single member of this Raptors squad down the floor, Sammy can run with anyone, Miller has the vision and judgment to make the right pass. None of that has changed from last season. Adding Brand gives you an excellent option in the half-court, if you're forced to play the half-court game, but it should not mean the Sixers are going to be walking the ball up the floor. They need to keep pushing, keep pressuring, keep creating easy shots for themselves in transition. Look at Brand as a trailer who's automatic from 15 feet if there's no clear layup on the break. Look at Rush as an option for an open three on the break.
The beauty of having Brand is that if you don't have the numbers on the break, it's not an iffy possession, you have something to fall back on, but don't play for that fall back. Play your game and get those easy hoops whenever you can.
We got some good news yesterday, Thad will be starting
. He's apparently all the way back from his strained lower back. Sammy will start as well.
It's been a long summer, enjoy the game tonight guys and check back here for the post game thoughts after the game.