As we've been reminded continuously, this Sixers team is pretty much the same Sixers team we've seen for the past half decade. If we're talking about ceilings, or draft picks, or regular season winning percentage, that's a bad thing. If we're talking about playoff performance, well, maybe it's not that bad.
The three consecutive first-round exits for the Sixers may seem like a harbinger of bad things to come in this series, and they very well may be, but take solace in the fact that this team has shown a propensity to pull it all together come playoff time. In 2008, they jumped out to a 2-1 lead over the Pistons and had a big lead heading into the second half of game four. They were one terrible stretch away from taking a stranglehold on that series. Detroit wound up going to the conference finals. The next year, they again jumped out to a 2-1 lead over the Magic and were a Hedo Turkoglu three at the buzzer away from a 3-1 lead. Orlando went to the Finals that season. Last year, despite being completely out-gunned, they held second-half leads in four of the five games against the Heat. Miami wound up going to the Finals. This Sixers team has faced some really good teams in the playoffs and they haven't backed down.
Does that mean they're going to win the series? Of course not. But I think it means we're going to see a hell of a fight.
After a hot and cold season, Doug Collins appears to have faced facts concerning his big man rotation. Lavoy Allen will get the start at the five next to Elton Brand. Lavoy brings a toughness to the starting lineup it sorely lacks when Spencer Hawes is out there. He also had the best game of his career against the Bulls back in February. If he can stand his ground in the paint, put a body on someone when the shot goes up, and battle for the contested boards, he's going to help this team. If he's knocking down the 17-foot jumper, he's going to help in a big way. The fact that the Sixers need to look to a second-round draft pick to plug a hole against the Bulls' front line shouldn't go unnoticed by anyone, especially not the front office, but this is situation we're in. Allen gives them a better shot than any of the other centers on the roster.
Defending Rose and keeping the bigs off the offensive glass are the big keys to this game. But there are a few smaller wrinkles to keep your eyes on. First, assuming he's staring, Jodie is going to be guarding Rip Hamilton. Chicago will try to attack that early. If Rip has success, Collins needs to get Turner in there quickly. If Rip is taking and missing 20-footers, it doesn't matter. He's got the skills to burn Jodie even down on the blocks, though, so this is not the time to let Jodie work through it, or start sending him help. In fact, if Jodie isn't hitting threes, I think Collins needs to have an extremely quick hook with him. Let's hope he found his stroke yesterday, though, because I have a feeling they're going to need him to get hot for a game or two if they're going to have any chance in this series.
Speaking of Turner, forget about him when Brewer or Deng is covering him. He's not going to be able to work on those guys. But if you have a chance to get Korver on him, then you let him go to work. I think he'll probably be able to operate with Rip on him, as well. Basically, if he has an athletic, long defender on him, he's not going to be efficient. If he has a slower, older or smaller man, he can go to work. Don't fight that trend, and definitely exploit it when he has matchup he can handle, because he can carry the offense for a half quarter or so when he's attacking it.
Jrue guarding Rose, and vice versa, is the matchup I'd pay to see, but for the team's success, Deng vs. Iguodala, on both ends, is probably more important. Iguodala needs to be aggressive on the offensive end, both in getting into the lane and also in creating for his teammates. I'd like to see Jrue on the receiving end of a couple of Iguodala drive-and-kicks today. The most intriguing matchup, at least for me, is Thad vs. Taj Gibson. I love Gibson's game and Thad's really going to have to work on one end of the floor to get his points, on the other end, he absolutely must keep a body on Gibson to keep him off the offensive glass.
Win or lose, the Sixers need to send a couple of messages in this game. The first is that they're aren't intimidated. Chicago's crowd is going to be nuts. The Bulls have their sites set on several rounds of playoff action this season. They need to know they're going to have a hell of a fight to get out of this round. The second, and probably more important, is they need to show that they won't be pushed around on the floor. Chicago's physical bigs are certainly capable of having their way with the Sixers front line. Philly's bigs need to show another level of toughness and aggression. In short, the Sixers need to come out ready to play playoff basketball. No touch fouls. No layups. No dunks. You come in the lane, you better be willing to scrape yourself off the floor and shoot the freebies. It's not really in their nature, or at least it isn't for most of them, Brand and Lavoy need to set the tone from the opening tip.
The tip is at 1pm. Game thread will land at 11:30.