The Indiana Pacers are currently percentage points ahead of the Sixers in the standings. That margin means everything once the playoffs start. Even if the Sixers win the Atlantic Division and are guaranteed no worse than the #4 seed, they could still be a road team in the first round of the playoffs if the #5 seed has a better record. A win tonight would give the Sixers a one-game lead on Indy and a 2-0 advantage in their head-to-head games (with 2 left to play at the end of the season). Must. Win.
The Pacers started the season hot, but have come back down to Earth recently. Their record has been kept afloat by feasting on the weak teams, but they've lost 9 straight games to teams with winning records. Sounds a bit familiar, unfortunately. Tonight, the Sixers have a chance to put another notch on their wins vs. winning teams belt. They have a chance to send a message to a team they might face in the first round of the playoffs, and perhaps most importantly, they have the chance to test out their shiny new starting lineup against one of the better defensive teams in the league.
The perimeter matchups should be great in this one. Jrue goes head-to-head with the guy who pushed him off the ball in his only season at UCLA, Darren Collison. Evan Turner faces a rangy, long defensive wing in Paul George, and a guy who he's going to have to stick to like glue on the perimeter on the defensive end. And Andre Iguodala gets to lock down the guy who carried his bags for Team USA two summers ago, Danny Granger. Those matchups, alone, are worth the price of admission.
The interesting matchups don't stop on the perimeter, though. Elton Brand vs. David West is a much closer contest than you might think. In fact, the edge probably goes to Brand, who can actually spell defense. Neither guy has been an efficient scorer. At the five, though, Roy Hibbert has a clear advantage. Thankfully, he's grossly underused by the Pacers, and the Sixers will probably gang up on him if he gets hot.
When you get to the benches, though, the Sixers have a distinct offensive advantage. George Hill is a talented combo guard who can't set people up and doesn't shoot enough. Dahntay Jones is only effective on the offensive end when he takes Lou Williams to the post. Jeff Foster is a monster on the offensive glass and a complete brute, but he has no offensive skills to speak of. The guy with the highest usage rate off the bench might be the easiest player in the league to defend, Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough has 22 assists in 873 minutes. The guy is a complete black hole on the offensive end, and he's a terrible shooter to boot. He cannot and will not pass. Every time he gets the ball I'm throwing an aggressive double team at him. Just make sure you don't foul him.
This game means a ton in terms of the standings, but it's even more important for the Sixers to keep this string of impressive games going heading into Hell weekend (don't look at the Fri/Sat back-to-back yet, just don't do it). Pick up this win. Put Indy in their place and look good doing it. Is that too much to ask?
The tip is at 7pm. It's a national game on ESPN. Game thread will land at 5pm.