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Sixers-Rockets Preview: Welcome to Thunderdome, Nerlens

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Tonight's game has the chance of turning into a rather extreme definition of "learning on the job."

When you realize you might have to guard Dwight Howard.
When you realize you might have to guard Dwight Howard.
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

You're Nerlens Noel. You are coming off the quietest game of your fledgling professional basketball career. You have been given the freedom to try new things on the court every night, but are also expected to produce while playing alongside a supporting cast that isn't especially keen on support. You are rail-thin, 6-foot-11 and generously listed at 228 pounds, and going through the rigors of an 82-game schedule for the first time in your life.

On top of everything, you are expected to guard the most physically dominant frontcourt player on the planet tonight. Good luck.

Heading into Monday's tilt against the 3-0 Houston Rockets, starting center (and more importantly, sacrificial lamb) Henry Sims is questionable with an upper respiratory infection*. If the sturdy Sims can't go, Noel could see increased time matched up with Dwight Howard, who looks stronger and more athletic than ever since his well-documented back surgery two years ago.

*Is it just me, or do these Sixers seem to get physically ill more than the average team? I imagine all of them are legitimately sick, so take this in the appropriate context, but couldn't you see this season turning into a ton of faking sick on the day of the big test? Just a thought.

There's also a decent chance that this matchup doesn't actually happen. For one, Howard himself is listed as questionable with a bruised knee, and if there is any team to rest a hobbled star against... well, you know. Even if Howard does play, I wonder if it would be prudent to stick Brandon Davies on him to begin with, so Noel can play his natural weak side shot-blocker role.

Regardless of how the frontcourt matchups shake out, trying to topple the balanced Rockets — Owners of both the fifth-ranked offensive and defensive efficiency on the young season — will be a daunting task for the shorthanded Sixers. James Harden will throw his body around in the paint and draw all of the fouls. Trevor Ariza will be stationed in the same corners he's had a ton of recent success in. Patrick Beverley (also questionable) will try to make Tony Wroten's night a living hell.

I'd like to see the newly aggressive Hollis Thompson continue with that approach against James Harden, whose defense is so bad that "sieve" really doesn't do it justice. I'd also like to see Tony Wroten continue to attack Beverley in hopes of getting the defensive pit bull in foul trouble. Some more K.J. McDaniels threes would help, as well.

Besides that, the Sixers can only do what they've been doing. Through three quarters so far, they've played competitive and compelling basketball. Let's hope tonight is the night they stretch that number out to four.