Tonight, the Celtics go on the road to play the only team in the Eastern Conference that has won with the same efficacy as they have over their past 15 games.
By going 12-3 in their last 15, the Celts have picked up a game on the Pistons in the race for home-court in the East, as Detroit has gone 11-4 in that stretch. So it isn't them.
The other two principle East powers -- Detroit and Orlando -- both sit at 9-6 in that span.
The Magic have been complaining about not getting enough attention? How about the East's hottest group of upstarts? The one that has superimposed itself into the playoff picture and its coach into the Coach of the Year running in one fell swoop?
Yep, the Celtics had best be ready to go tonight. Because the Philadelphia 76ers are playing lights-out basketball.All of Steve's daily posts can be found in the CelticsBlog: NBA blog. Check him out!
In just a shade more than a month, the Sixers have gone from sitting entirely outside the playoff picture in the East to ensconcing themselves comfortably in seventh place in the conference, just a half-game out of sixth and a safe three and a half games ahead of the Hawks in eighth. They have won 12 of 15, and they have done it everywhere, going 8-1 at home and 4-2 on the road.
The formula has been simple in the City of Brotherly Love: defense, rebounding, energy and a little bit of scoring from everyone.
The Sixers have vaulted into the top third of the league defensively, sitting at ninth in basketball with 106.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. Everybody is chipping in on that end of the floor. Though Samuel Dalembert's defensive game has been long overrated thanks to his gaudy blocks numbers, he has begun to improve his movement and positioning on the interior, and he does continue to block more than two shots per game. Reggie Evans has been an excellent addition on the inside as well, as his strength and fearlessness have given the Sixers an attitude makeover defensively. Andre Iguodala has used his massive wingspan and excellent quickness to cause opponents all sorts of problems both in man-to-man defense on the perimeter and in the passing lanes. As of late, the energy has been contagious, and it seems that the intensity has picked up from everyone in the black, white and blue.
Dalembert and Evans in particular have been integral in helping the Sixers dominate the glass. They are the league's second best rebounding team, nabbing 52 percent of available boards, and they are the league's top team on the offensive glass, converting on 31.8 percent of their offensive rebound opportunities. This is in no small part thanks to Dalembert and Evans averaging 10 and 8 boards per game respectively and combining to average 6 per game on the offensive end between them. It doesn't hurt that three other players are averaging more than four boards per game as well, including point guard Andre Miller.
Speaking of Miller, it hasn't hurt that he is having a bit of a renaissance season in his own right. Though his assist numbers are down to 6.7 per game, the soon-to-be 32-year-old point guard has been worth more than his numbers to his team this season. Miller has provided a strong veteran presence and been a steadying influence on the floor for this unit as well as helping with the development of young guard Louis Williams. It doesn't hurt that he has done it while having perhaps the most efficient season of his career as a scorer, averaging 16.8 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting, both career highs. Miller has allowed budding star Andre Iguodala to facilitate the offense from time to time as well, as demonstrated by Iguodala's 4.6 assists per game.
In fact, what has made this team so strong of late is that Miller and Iguodala have been getting everyone involved on the offensive end. Five players are averaging in double-figures for the season, and over this recent hot stretch, seven different players have led the Sixers in scoring. Louis Williams is averaging an absurd 11.1 points in just 22 minutes per game, and Georgia Tech rookie Thaddeus Young (who can really play) has been coming on particularly strong of late.
More than anything, this squad from Philly has become a team. They listen to good-guy coach Maurice Cheeks. They play defense together. They rebound. They move the ball on offense, and then they put it in the basket.
That said, the true story about the 2007-08 Philadephia 76ers will be written through the rest of March, when the Sixers face what may be the toughest stretch of their schedule yet. They meet the Celtics twice, host the Spurs, Nuggets and Suns and go to Detroit, Cleveland and Orlando. Though their home in the putrid Eastern Conference may bail them out, the Sixers will likely have to have at least a modicum of success against some of the league's elite teams in order to prove their mettle down the stretch and secure a playoff berth along the way.
But there is reason to believe in Philly. Though the Sixers have played their share of patsies over this recent stretch, they have won those games quite handily (six wins by 15 points or more), and they have also notched wins against Dallas and Orlando at home and Phoenix on the road.
Though their postseason destiny remains to be seen, this much is for sure: The Sixers are well on their way to removing the "guaranteed W" designation next to their names on opposing schedules with much greater expedience than nearly anyone expected.