The Philadelphia 76ers spent the first month-plus of the season beating up on bad and short-handed teams. They did so in impressive fashion, but their strength of schedule left many questioning the import of their 14-6 record just a week ago. Decisive wins over the Orlando Magic (15-9), Chicago Bulls (20-6) and Atlanta Hawks (16-8) have added weight to their 17-7 record, while a demoralizing loss to the Miami Heat sandwiched in the middle showed they still have work to do.
Later this week, the Sixers should get word they'll send their first representative to the All Star game in six years. If you check the power rankings all over the Internet, the Sixers are in listed in the top five. National media outlets are writing about the Sixers almost on a daily basis. ESPN has added two more Sixers game to their schedule, they'll be televised nationally six times in the month of March alone. If national recognition was the goal, the Sixers have reached it.
Of course, recognition was never the team's goal. Or at least it shouldn't have been. The goal is to win games. Win the division, get home court for a round or two in the playoffs and win at least one round once they get there. More than a third of the season has gone by, the Sixers are three-and-a-half games ahead of the Celtics in the Atlantic Division, they've got another extremely tough week ahead of them. It's time to take stock of what they need to do to hold onto the division and grab a top-four seed in the East.
With the number one defense in the league (both in PPG allowed, and the much more important defensive efficiency rating), it's obvious how they got where they are. The simple answer is to keep defending like they have been, though that's certainly a tall order with their upcoming schedule. Over their four games last week, all against solid, or better, playoff teams, they held their opponents to a combined 97.57 points-per-100-possessions, which is a bit off their league-leading 95.0, but still better than the second-best team in the league (Portland). The defense held up, and that's including the big loss to Miami.
On the offensive end, the Sixers are using an unconventional formula to remain in the top ten in efficiency. It's obvious they spread the ball around, they've had eight different leading scorers this season and they have eight players averaging nine or more points per game. Without an offensive superstar, in the traditional sense, they rely on ball and player movement to get decent looks at the hoop which they convert at above league average percentages. Three big problems on the offensive end, though. They don't get offensive rebounds (worst in the league), they hardly ever get to the line (second-fewest free throw attempts per game) and they shoot a terrible percentage when they do get to the line (72.2%, fifth-worst in the league). How do they overcome these offensive problems? Simple, they don't turn the ball over, at all. They lead the league by a country mile in turnover percentage (10.7%). It's not difficult to do the math. A turnover equals zero points, without exception. Even a bad shot has say a 25% chance of leading to points. Over the past four games, against top-notch competition, they were even better at taking care of the ball, turning it over on only 7.5% of possessions.
It might not be realistic to expect the Sixers to maintain these lofty levels of efficiency on both ends of the floor, then again, they also haven't been at full strength for the past three weeks. Spencer Hawes finally returned to the lineup against the Hawks on Saturday only to see Elton Brand miss the game with a thumb injury. Honestly, though, they've been so good on the defensive side of the ball even a moderate drop off wouldn't doom their chances at winning the Atlantic or finishing with a top-four seed.
Let's take a look at the Atlantic. Currently, the Celtics are making a strong push back from their dreadful start. They crushed the Grizzlies yesterday to move to 13-10 on the season, they've won 8 of 10. People are saying they're definitely back, and at this point, you'd have to say they're the one team in the division the Sixers need to worry about. If you look a bit closer, though, Boston has really played the easiest portion of their schedule to this point. Like the Sixers, they've played 15 home games already, but they've actually only played 8 on the road (Philly has played 9). Their strength of schedule (winning percentage of the teams they've played) is a bit better than the Sixers (.450 for PHI, .461 for BOS), but if you look closer at the schedule, Boston has a rough road ahead of them. In this lockout-shortened season, every team has to contend with short rest and tough travel. The Celtics haven't been hit by that bug yet. They've only played four back-to-backs so far (the Sixers have played six, and a back-to-back-to-back). The Celtics are an old team, a team that has already been hit by injuries to key members of their rotation, and they've got 18 home games left on their schedule to 25 on the road, 11 back-to-backs, 1 back-to-back-to-back and a stretch of seven games in nine days, with five of those games on the road, in April.
This division is right there for the Sixers to take. They probably won't even need to maintain their torrid pace to take home the Atlantic, but they may have to finish with about 44 wins in order to secure home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, which has to be the goal.
The thing the team has been great at this year is complete tunnel vision. They've been able to forget the previous game and avoid looking forward to the rest of their week, let alone the rest of the season. Standing in front of them tonight will be Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have been a terrible road team this season (3-8 away from Staples), but they are a matchup nightmare for the Sixers. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol are two of the best big men in the league, and the Sixers lack for any real legitimate big defender. If Los Angeles is determined to play through Bynum and Gasol, the Sixers won't have much of a chance. The equalizer in this matchup is the Lakers complete lack of three-point threats. As a team, they shoot below 30% from deep, with Troy Murphy as the only regular in their rotation who shoots better than league average. The Sixers can, and should, double Bynum and Gasol whenever they get the ball on the blocks. Get the ball out of their hands and make the Lakers beat them from beyond the arc.
After the Lakers, the Spurs and Clippers will head into the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday and Friday before the Sixers head on the road again to face Kyrie Irving and the suddenly relevant Cavs on Saturday. Another tough week, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Tonight, it's the Lakers and Kobe. That's all that matters.