Tonight the 15-6 Philadelphia 76ers will host the team with the best record in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls, in a game I've had circled on my calendar for a long time. As we've discussed ad nauseam, despite their 15-6 record and 4.5 game lead in the Atlantic division, no one believes this Sixers team is as good as their record or superlatives say they are.
The Sixers are destroying bad teams, sure, but they have yet to win a close game (1-4 in games decided by 7 points or less) or defeat an elite team. Beating the Blazers in Portland would've been impressive. They lost. Beating the Knicks in The Garden on the third game of a tripleback would've been impressive. They lost. Beating the Nuggets would've been impressive. They lost. Beating the Heat in Miami on the second of a back-to-back would've been damn impressive. They were blown out. Their only semi-impressive wins were against the Pacers (without Danny Granger), the Hawks and Monday night against the Magic. Normally beating the Magic would qualify as an impressive win, but that team is visibly in shambles and losing to everybody these days.
The Sixers still own the league's weakest schedule and severely lack a marquee victory to hush the "they haven't beaten anybody" whispers, which grow stronger with every game. A win tonight, against Derrick Rose and the Bulls, would certainly qualify as a marquee victory. Are the Sixers up for the task?
First things first, the Bulls are healthy ... well, almost. Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton both missed Monday's game, and Rip appears to be out a while, but Deng is listed as day-to-day and may return to the starting lineup tonight. Point is, the Bulls are healthy enough, to where there should be no excuses if the Sixers win. They still have Derrick Rose and eight of their top nine players in terms of win shares, even without Deng. And the Sixers will probably be without Spencer Hawes again. Short rest is no excuse either because both teams last played on Monday.
Jrue vs. Rose
The Sixers second best perimeter defender, Jrue Holiday, has the all-world talent to be elite defensively, but the third year point guard is still fairly inconsistent and has yet to put it – whatever "it" is – all together. But the talent is there and Sixers fans have seen Jrue lock down some the league's best for stretches, whether for a few possessions, a quarter, or a game. Tonight he'll face the ultimate challenge of defending the reigning NBA MVP and arguably the best point guard in the game.
Defense and Rebounding
Statistically, he Sixers are the best defensive team in the league, but the Bulls are the second best. The Bulls are also the best rebounding team in the NBA, where the Sixers rank 17th. Likely without Spencer Hawes for the ninth consecutive game, the Sixers will need Herculean efforts from the likes of Tony Battie, Nikola Vucevic, Lavoy Allen, Elton Brand and possibly Sisqo Elson to keep the Bulls off the glass. Omer Asik, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer are all above average on the defensive side of rebounding. Noah and Asik, along with Taj Gibson, excel on the offensive end.
Keys to the Game
- Can Jrue slow down Rose? Certainly no easy task, but if Jrue holds Rose to a sub-par game, for Rose's standards, the Sixers may have a chance.
- Can the Sixers withstand the Bulls advantage in rebounding? Remember when Kris Humphies, Shawne Williams and Shelden Williams murdered the Hawe-less Sixers on the glass last week, which along with Deron Williams, ultimately led to a Nets win? Well, the Nets were nowhere near the rebounding team the Bulls are, and if the Sixers are held anywhere near the 45.1 total rebounding percentage they had against the Nets, they'll lose tonight's game by 30.
- Can the Sixers manage enough points against the Bulls' defense? The Sixers average 103 points per game with Spencer Hawes and 91 when he doesn't suit up. The Bulls give up an average of 87 points per game. The Bulls have Derrick Rose, who runs the fourth most efficient offense in the league. I don't care how well the Sixers defend, their offense is going to have to produce tonight, Hawes or no Hawes.