The mid-winter bash known as the All-Star weekend has finally ended. And since I'm sitting at my Phoenix gate with entirely too much time on my hands, I figured it was time to get back to the blog.
As necessary as the break is -- these guys needs a few days rest, after all -- it's does feel like the season lost a little bit of momentum. And for the Sixers, who were rolling, that's not a good thing. They'd won four straight, bumped their record to 27-24, had the rookie Marreese Speights playing like a champ (although Speights probably needed the break more than anyone), and were climbing up the Eastern Conference standings.
Since we've covered so many topics on here (three-point defense, halfcourt offense, Speightyman ...) I figured we could take a look at the next five games and do a quick breakdown.
Game 1, Tuesday at the Indiana Pacers: It would be easy to say this should be a victory, since the Sixers just beat Indiana on Feb. 5. But that was at the Wachovia Center. The Pacers are a much better team at home. They beat the Cavaliers at Conseco Fieldhouse just before the break (96-95). Still, I think this is a game the Sixers will win -- heck, it's a game they should win if they're going to get to the four seed. And the Sixers have experience beating the Pacers in Indiana -- they came back from, I believe, a 27-point hole earlier this season. Indiana is 21-33. If the Sixers can contain the outside shooting of Danny Granger, like they did (for the most part) in that Feb. 5 game, they should be able to get out of a here with a win. That makes them 28-24.
Game 2, Wednesday vs. the Denver Nuggets: Okay, as much as I think this could be a victory, I think it's going to be tough on a back-to-back to beat the Nuggets. Especially since Chauncey Billups is Chauncey Billups. Here's my X-Factor in this game: Denver's J.R. Smith. He's inconsistent, and in the Sixers loss at Denver, he was really effective -- went off for almost 20 points in the first half. If he has one of his non-existent games, the Sixers will win. Still, I'm putting this as a loss, making the Sixers 28-25. (This is not scientific, nor do I expect everyone to agree.)
Game 3, Saturday at the Miami Heat: Wow. This is tough. Sixers lost by 23 the first time in Miami, but just beat the Heat at home. Plus, Miami has Jermaine O'Neal now -- instead of Marion. I think that improves the Heat considerably. I'm giving the nod to Miami on this one, although I will hedge my bet by saying that if Willie Green or Lou Williams can score 15-plus points, the Sixers will win. But, still, I'm going with a loss: That makes them 28-26.
Game 4, Monday at the New Jersey Nets: This is a victory. Sixers will not lose this game, specifically because they lost that last one against the Nets. Yeah, it's in New Jersey, but that's never been on top of the list of scariest NBA arenas. Sixers win this by at least 8 points. That makes them 29-26.
Game 5, Wednesday at the Washington Wizards: This, too, is a victory. If this isn't a victory, it will be the worst loss of the season (and there are some bad losses fighting for that honor). If the Sixers are allowed, as is standard with NBA rules, to play five players at a time, they will win. That makes them 30-26.
I think making sure to get three wins -- wherever they might come -- in these first five games after the break is going to be important. There are absolutely three winable games, and the realistic potential they could win all five.
I spoke earlier today to Tony DiLeo before the team boarded their flight to Indianapolis (they're practicing tonight in Indy). DiLeo said he believes the most important things going forward will be defensive rebounding, pick-and-roll defensive execution, and continued strong play from the bench. DiLeo also mentioned improving the half-court execution. As for these next three days (trading deadline is Feb. 19), I asked DiLeo if it was difficult during such an up-in-the-air time of the season. DiLeo said, "The team we have is the team we’re going to continue with unless Ed [Stefanski] tells me otherwise. That’s the mindset. I know around the league a lot of players names have been out there speculating. My mindset is we’re going to go with the team we have right now. Unless Ed tells me otherwise. And I don’t anticipate a lot happening with our team."
Of course, these things change in a second. Right after I post this, a trade could happen. But, for this moment in time, those were DiLeo's words. Now, we're not sure right now if they'll make a deal or not, but I think they have a strong enough team as is to fight for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference and give themselves a chance to surprise people in the playoffs.