The Sixers have done two things extremely well under Doug Collins this season: (1) Protected their home floor. They're 25-12 at the WFC with four games to go. (2) Bounced back from bad losses, even on the second night of back-to-backs. See the Chicago game last Monday, see the Boston game after the Chicago loss. See the win at the Clippers after the Utah loss. Those two patterns need to hold tonight against the Knicks.
Let's me start by saying I want the Sixers to finish with the #6 seed. I want the Sixers to finish above .500. I desperately want the Sixers to go into the playoffs with momentum. Losing to the Knicks tonight would be a terrible way to begin this four-game homestand.
Let's put this game into proper perspective, and please don't tell me it doesn't matter where they finish because we don't know what the matchups will be. That's precisely why finishing strong is paramount. You can't control what the top three teams will do, but you can control the type of basketball you're playing when the second season begins. Anyway, if the Sixers win this game, they will have a 1.5 game lead over the Knicks, a one-game lead in the loss column, but more importantly, they'll own the tiebreaker over the Knicks. Effectively, they'll have a two-game lead over the Knicks with three games left to play. If they lose, they'll be a half game behind the Knicks, one game in the loss column, and the Knicks will probably take the tiebreaker as well based on conference record. So for all intents and purposes, a two-game deficit with three games left to play. This game is probably going to decide who finishes sixth and who finishes seventh.
I talked earlier about the roles Brand and Iguodala played the last time these teams met, and the importance of those guys holding up their end on opposite ends of the floor, so let's take a look at a couple of other interesting matchups:
Jrue/Jodie vs. Chauncey/Fields/Douglas - The Knicks have sort of figured out that Chauncey can't guard anyone anymore, and they sort of think that's kind of important. To this end, they've resorted to using a backcourt of Douglas and Chauncey quite a bit, because then Douglas can guard the opposing point guard. Of course, this takes Landry Fields off the court, so they still haven't completely ironed out the rotation. When Douglas and Chauncey are on the floor together, it'll be interesting to see whether Collins follows suit and puts Meeks on Chauncey on the defensive end. Chauncey absolutely smoked Jrue (and everyone else) when the Sixers played the Nuggets prior to the trade. No matter who winds up on Billups, they can't lose him behind the arc, and they need to take into account where Chauncey takes his shots from. He's not going to take the long two, it's essentially a three or an attempt at the rim. Chauncey's shot has been sketchy recently, so maybe I'd take a wait-and-see approach to dealing with the pick-and-roll. If he's hitting early, you have to fight over and take away the three. If he isn't, then make sure you're cutting off the driving lanes.
Crowd Landry Fields. He's a very good shooter when he has an open look, but he's close to pitiful when trying to create off the dribble. Limit his open looks, keep a body on him to keep him off the offensive glass and you can pretty much take him out of the game, if D'Antoni doesn't do the job for us.
Douglas is the most dangerous of the three on the offensive end, imo, and I want to see Jrue on him at all times. He can penetrate, he's an effective, streaky shooter from deep and he can absolutely light up the scoreboard if he gets hot. Jrue should look to crowd him and try to force him to make plays passing the ball, which isn't his strong suit. On the other end, Douglas is a really solid on-ball defender and he can make it hard to get into your offense. I'd like to see some high screens to free Jrue because the rest of the Knicks defense behind him is horrible. If Jrue can use those high screens to get some separation from Douglas, the drive and kick game will be wide open all night long. Expect Jodie to be the beneficiary of these drives, in fact, I'd probably use Jodie to set those screens, it'll be easy for the defense to lose him out beyond the three-point line as they scramble to recover to the driver.
Melo and Iguodala - Beyond Iguodala's defense on Melo, which might be the most important factor in this game, two other important aspects of this matchup. (1) Iguodala needs to be active on the offensive end. By that, I don't mean he needs to take a ton of shots, but he does need to have the ball in his hands and he needs to be making plays. He needs to keep Melo active on the defensive end, can't let him have a free ride. This can also manifest itself on run outs. If Iguodala is sprinting and/or pushing the ball up the floor on every miss, Melo is going to have to sprint back after every possession. Wear him out on that end. (2) On the glass. The Knicks lack rebounding from their bigs, if Iguodala can pull Melo out from the hoop, put a body on him, or just outjump him for boards, other guys won't pick up the slack. They really rely on him to help control the boards more than most teams lean on small forwards. Iguodala can certainly take that away from them, or mitigate it.
Thad on Shawne Williams - We probably aren't talking about a ton of minutes, but the Knicks will use Williams at the four, probably when Thad is on the floor, and the biggest weakness of Thad's game is being able to know when to help, who to help off, and how to recover to his man when he's a threat to shoot from deep. Thad needs to keep in contact with Williams and let someone else worry about helping because the only way Williams will hurt you is from three, and he can do serious damage from deep.
That's all I've got, just a few things to look for. I still think the keys are Iguodala on defense and Brand on offense, but there are absolutely other things that could swing this game either way. As for Turner, he needs to stay aggressive and definitely use his size when he's got Billups, Douglas or Anthony Johnson on him. When Fields is on him, I'd say make him move his feet laterally. Fields strikes me as being a stiff player, change of pace, change of direction and side-to-side movement should allow Turner to shake him. Oh, and when you get an open catch-and-shoot from three, you have to take it.
Prediction: PHI 114, NYK 99
I'm also tapping Jodie Meeks as my pregame POTG prediction. I think he cans 5 big threes and completely decimates the Knick defense.
The tip is at 7pm. If you're in the area, there are plenty of cheap tickets available on the secondary market. If you aren't, the game thread will land 90 minutes prior to the tip and I'll be right here to suffer/celebrate with you throughout the game.