Maybe the streak doesn't have to stop, but it would be nice. The Sixers have played elite basketball over the first 14 games. They've absolutely destroyed a series of bad teams. What they haven't done is win a close game and beat a good team at full strength. Until they do those two things, that little voice in the back of our heads is going to continue to ask, "Have they really improved?" Beating Atlanta tonight won't silence the voice, but it would turn the volume down a bit.
The Sixers held a player meeting yesterday...after one loss. I like that. This whole "culture of winning" thing needs to be taken seriously by the guys on the floor. If they treat losing as unacceptable, they'll do what needs to be done to keep winning.
The Hawks are an interesting team. I thought they'd go in the tank when they lost their best player, Al Horford, for the majority of the season, but they've rallied. They're 4-0 without Horford, and they're coming off a win over the Blazers. They've been splitting the minutes at the five between Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins in Horford's absence, with Collins getting the last two starts. The more minutes Collins plays tonight, the better. His forte is really post defense. He's very good at it, and does basically nothing else when he's on the floor. Against the Sixers, he has no one to defend on the blocks. Pachulia, on the other hand, is a physical big who's active on the offensive glass. He's a guy who could give the Sixers' finesse bigs problems.
Atlanta relies on three players for extremely heavy minutes: Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague. Teague's efficiency numbers are pretty similar to Jrue's, with about 5% less usage. Neither Joe Johnson nor Josh Smith has been particularly efficient to this point, but they do get a lot of shots up.
It looks like Hawes is not going to be able to play again, which means Doug Collins has a decision to make right from the opening tip. He can insert Vucevic into the starting lineup for Hawes and stick with his traditional lineup, or he can look at the lineup Atlanta uses, and decide to switch things up. Josh Smith is far from a traditional power forward. He's cut from the same cloth as Thad, undersized, not really a stretch four, but a smallish athletic four. If there was a time for Collins to give Thad a start and go with a smaller starting lineup, this would be it. Personally, I'd go with Brand, Thad, Iguodala, Turner and Jrue. The lineup which brought the Sixers back in the fourth quarter against the Nuggets, and also one of the best defensive lineups in the league so far this season, fifth-best, to be exact. I understand why Collins is hesitant to to start out with a small lineup against most teams, but against Atlanta, he has to at least think about it. Even if he doesn't start with that lineup, he needs to use it liberally throughout the game.
The Hawks are one of the few teams who shoot more long twos than the Sixers, see if you can take advantage of that on the defensive end. The Hawks actually have quite a few guys who are shooting the three well so far this year, including Willie Green. Chase those guys off the three-point line, let them take a dribble in and launch the long two, Willie's specialty.
Tracy McGrady's sneaky efficiency is a curiosity and I'm actually looking forward to seeing him play. Turner vs. McGrady should be fun to watch on both ends. Keep an eye on the Iguodala/Marvin Williams matchup. Believe it or not, Williams has torched AI9 in the past. I'd actually prefer to see Iguodala (or Turner) on Joe Johnson, but I have a feeling it will be Meeks, at least early in the game.
Believe it or not, this game is for the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Get the win.
The tip is at 7pm. Game thread will land around 5. If you missed it, listen to the replay of last night's SixersBeat right here.