A Look at the Sixers
Philadelphia was one of the teams I thought quite highly of coming into the season. It seemed like a no-brainer that adding a talent like Elton Brand to an athletic, but post-free, mix would result in dramatic improvement. I had yet to reckon with the Sixers' general lack of outside shooting, however. With Brand most effective down low and those wing players most effective driving the ball it's been relatively easy for opponents to pack the middle on defense, leaving Philly a choice between difficult interior shots and missed jumpers. For most of the season the results haven't been pretty. The scoring averages of Brand and the Sixers' other star, Andre Iguodala, plummeted. Coach Maurice Cheeks was fired 15 games ago because of it. After that Philly reached a nadir of 13-20 and lost Brand to a shoulder injury.
Just when it seemed like things couldn't get any worse, though...they got better. Philadelphia is now the proud owner of a four-game winning streak. After a two-point loss to San Antonio they rattled off wins against Houston, Milwaukee, Charlotte, and Atlanta. That's not a shabby lineup. The Sixers have topped 100 in 3 of those 4 games and 5 of their last 7 overall after managing it only 9 times the rest of the season. With the middle of the court now free the offense, triggered by Iguodala and fellow guard Andre Miller, has been crisp, quick, and efficient. The scoring has been augmented by Philly's furious offensive rebounding attack, a hallmark of their season.
All of this bodes well for the Sixers since they were already a decent defensive and rebounding team. Granted, Brand has been a big part of that and he's not there right now, but they're still athletic and committed enough to give you trouble. They force turnovers and block a few shots, playing more of a pressure style than great percentage defense. They're not as good on the defensive boards as they are on the offensive boards (Where have we seen that before?) but they always seem to have somebody step up.
The old bugaboo still haunts the Sixers though: they just don't have a consistent shooting game. You do have to watch out for Miller and super-forward Thaddeus Young can burn you badly from most anywhere off the dribble, but for the most part their shooters aren't going to scare you enough to get you to ignore the greater interior threat.
Even without Brand Philadelphia has some names to fear. Iguodala and Miller top the list. The Blazers will have to stop them, particularly Iguodala who will try to go down low and have his way, to keep the Sixers in check. Young presents his own problems, as he's like Travis Outlaw but on more. Their big men, particularly rookie Marreese Speights and old hand Samuel Delambert, are streaky. The name of the game in the frontcourt is mobility. The Blazers bigs better have their track shoes on because their counterparts get plenty good when they get free on the run or on the offensive boards.
Keys to the Game
1. With the speed of the Philly frontcourt his is one of those games that will either be a bonanza for Greg Oden or five-foul hell. We won't know which until the ball goes up. Either way it's a cinch that neither Oden nor Przybilla will be able to play extended minutes without a rest unless something goes very wrong for the Sixers. Every Portland player 6'8" and over better be ready to play because you could see some unusual matchup lineups tonight. Channing Frye, Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum...the ability of these guys to fill spot minutes effectively could be the difference.
2. There's just no way around it...we have to control some guards straight up. We're usually facing one guard you have to pay extra attention to and one you can slack off of. Tonight we've got two you have to pay attention to. And if you have to help a lot you leave Young single-covered or you leave their big men alone which is about the only way they can succeed offensively. Somebody has got to step up here.
3. Keep them off of the offensive boards and win the rebounding battle. I was doing some research for the latest article at Sports Northwest Magazine (great glossy mag...pick up a subscription) and I came across this interesting stat. The Blazers are 21-2 when they win the rebounding battle. They are 2-12 when they fail to. Even without Brand this is a matchup of two good rebounding teams. Our strength needs to top theirs. Take away their second opportunities and you're halfway to winning this game.
4. Points in the paint will be a huge stat for Philadelphia. If they get them that means their penetration is going unchecked or we're not getting back in transition, either of which will kills us. Make them beat us over the top.
5. Watch the turnovers.
6. If everything else fails, beat them at their own game. Penetrate aggressively and rebound on the offensive end yourself. If you can stay with them point for point, blow for blow, eventually the outside superiority should tell.
Check out the Philadelphia point of view at LibertyBallers (and the incredibly nice Ambassador's report by einman77 in the sidebar). Which reminds me...I owe an apology to Norsktroll, as he e-mailed me a detailed report about the Mavs right before Christmas and I totally spaced on printing it. We'll catch it next time.
Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.