The day before Thanksgiving and the day after Thanksgiving are going to reveal where this 76ers team belongs. Do they belong in the playoff discussion? Might we need to continue the "let's wait and see" approach? Or will they demonstrate they're a long way from where we thought they might be?
Tonight, the Orlando Magic (10-4). Friday, the Boston Celtics (13-2).
As much as we built up the recent five-game stretch against "struggling" teams as a time for the Sixers to explode and build a two-or-three game cushion between themselves and the .500 mark, perhaps we didn't realize how hard it might be for a young team to avoid slipping into a lull without a big-time opponent and an energetic atmosphere to provide the energy.
(That was a long sentence.)
I know, I know. You might be thinking: This is the NBA. Each game should be reason enough to rock it. And, I would say, you should be correct. It should be. But the reality is, during an 82-game season, a stretch of five games in half-filled arenas against mediocre teams could lead to playing down to your opponent.
Willie Green said as much after Monday night's bad loss to the Charlotte Bobcats. He said they were playing to the level of their opponent. My hypothesis today: Maybe the Sixers can continue that trend and inject their own game with the energy garnered from back-to-back, big-time games. First the Magic and superman Dwight Howard on ESPN. Then the defending NBA Champs, the Celtics, at their (jam-packed) arena.
Maybe what the Sixers need is a jolt from two marquee games.
Let's look at tonight's game: It doesn't appear that former St. Joseph's star guard Jameer Nelson will play. He strained his groin in the third quarter of the Magic's last game. When the Sixers first played the Magic (a 98-88 loss on Nov. 6), Nelson had 16 points and nine assists. On the season he is averaging 14.4 points and 5.1 assists.
In the first game between these two teams, the Magic built a big lead, which the Sixers slowly erased after halftime. After this game, Sixers head coach Maurice Cheeks said it just takes too much energy (against a team like the Magic) to dig out of a large hole. There just isn't enough energy remaining to win the game.
Keys to tonight's game (in my humble opinion):
1.) The first substitution rotation. Through 14 games, the transition from starters to second unit between the first and second quarters has been a weak point. With Lou Williams struggling with his shooting and Reggie Evans providing little offense, the Sixers have been giving back a lot of points during this segment. Keep your eye on a change of flow during this time. The Sixers can't afford, against the Magic, to allow a 12-4 run (or something along those lines) during this time frame.
2.) Andre Iguodala. I'll say it again: He makes this team go. Bottom line. It's not about his outside shot. He is the one that creates offense for this team. He also makes it happen on the defensive end. When he is not in the game, the Sixers are a worse team (the numbers back this up ... thanks Statman). He needs to be on the floor. Even when he is not playing as well as we've seen him play, he impacts the game in a positive manner. If he can play well (say, go 9 for 16 from the floor), the Sixers will win this game.
3.) Renewed energy. I think the locker room after the loss in Charlotte was a low point. Guys were walking around and saying they were a ".500 team right now" but that they didn't believe they should be a .500 team. A lot of the problem has been an inability to maintain NBA-level energy for a full 48 minutes. I would be shocked if this were a problem tonight. The Magic may win, but if the Sixers roll over, we've a big problem on our hands (considering this is the biggest game they've played at the Wachovia Center so far this season).
We'll talk more this afternoon.