One combatant enters tonight's game on a six-game losing streak, the last of those losses coming against a bad Eastern Conference team. For once, it's not the Sixers but the Toronto Raptors who are struggling to find their form.
This isn't to say Philadelphia is setting the world on fire, fresh off a 20-point loss to Indiana, but to highlight the absurdity that is the NBA in early March. The length of an NBA season starts to become a story around the All-Star break each season, and Toronto will happily blame their lack of form on the calendar. With homecourt advantage all but assured for at least one round, they don't have a ton to play for down the stretch.
If Toronto thinks they can rest a banged up Kyle Lowry, as they did in their 103-98 loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday, they might be in for a rude awakening. Lowry has indicated that his focus is on the bigger picture, and the playoffs certainly take precedent over a Monday night game against the Sixers. His team could regret that stance with the Bulls and Cavs nipping at their heels. Say what you will about the Sixers, but one thing they have a tendency to capitalize on is listlessness from their opponents. The faces have changed often, but under Brett Brown's guidance the 2014-15 Sixers come ready to work every night.
One fascinating subplot heading into a meeting with the Philadelphia native is Brown's own use of the point guards on his roster. The post-deadline play of Isaiah Canaan and Ish Smith hasn't exactly made losing Michael Carter-Williams easier to cope with in the short term, but Smith has turned a few heads in the last two games.
He's devastatingly quick if not much else, using his speed to draw defenders and dump the ball off to open teammates. Canaan's shot selection has left a little -- okay a lot -- to be desired, and if defensive concerns are roughly equal, it wouldn't be a shock to see the spritely Smith continue to pick up additional minutes. Smith was rewarded for his play with a start in the second half against the Pacers, and with more shooters available you can see why Brown might lean toward him over Canaan.
Speaking of shooters, the jury is out on whether Robert Covington will be available for tonight's game after taking a spill underneath the Pacers basket on Sunday. Coach Brown informed the public that X-rays were negative on the elbow that broke his fall, but if there's any serious concern, it's unlikely that they'd run him out there tonight.
Jason Richardson should also be considered something of a question mark this early in his comeback; giving him the night off on the second night of a back-to-back is fairly likely. Based on the desire he's flashed to those around the team, however...
When asked by the Sixers strength and conditioning coach how he's feeling, 1-10, @jrich23 said (wait for ittttt)...10, and kept shooting.— Molly Sullivan (@MollyESullivan) February 25, 2015
... it's far from a lock that he'll sit out.
With JaVale McGee sent packing, Coach Brown will also have some decisions to make with the front-court rotation. He's seemed content keeping Henry Sims glued to the bench with McGee and Thomas Robinson inserted into the mix, playing Sims only 15 minutes combined in the last three. Nerlens Noel has been so much more comfortable (and proficient) shooting from within 15 feet that Sims' greatest strength isn't entirely necessary. The franchise is better-served allowing Noel to get as many reps as possible and allotting more time for someone like Robinson.
More than ever, giving opportunities to more unknown qualities is the name of the game. As Toronto hunkers down and trusts it has enough for a push into the summer months, Philadelphia continues to treat every game as an opportunity to learn something new. The Sixers have shown incremental progress since getting shellacked by Toronto in November -- we'll see if they've come far enough to finally get over the hump against the Raps.