Closing out their last west coast swing of the year, the 76ers outclassed the Sacramento Kings, 102-80. Jrue Holiday ignited early, posting his 15 points and 4 steals in the first half, and the Sixers never looked back. Many of the starters got some much earned rest; watching the 4th quarter of the blowout from the sideline.
As impressive as the performance may have been, Sacramento looked like a team counting down the days until the end of their season. DeMarcus Cousins, at times, showed brief flashes of his talent and athletic prowess, but that was pretty much all the Kings had going for them. If Sixer reserves Jason Kapono and Andres Nocioni are logging minutes, it’s safe to say it was a one-sided affair.
This was a game the 76ers knew they were supposed to win – and they came out intent on delivering. Holding the Kings to 34% shooting from the field, the Sixers also scored 27 points off of 22 Sacramento turnovers. More importantly, their conquest over the Kings moved them a half a game ahead of the New York Knicks for 6th place in the east.
The question is, will they stay there? And if so, how? The teams have comparable schedules the rest of the way, and the season series stands 2-1 in favor of Philly. New York, dropping a game to Detroit on Friday, is currently slumping through its worst stretch of the Melo era – losing 4 of their last 5. On April 6th, the Sixers host New York for their last matchup of the year; which could easily be the determinate in who finishes 6th at the season’s end. Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, as seeds 5 through 8 will have their work cut out for them in the East.
The top teams in the east will all prove tough matchups in the playoffs, but current 3rd seed Miami may be the most vulnerable. Boston has the best defense and most experience. Derrick Rose has been leading Chicago, currently atop the conference, in MVP fashion, and the injury-free Bulls are really starting to gel as a team. Dwight Howard perpetually changes games with his domination in the paint, despite being snubbed out of any MVP chatter.
Miami, though, has been under more scrutiny than any team in recent memory. And while there is no room to question the talent of LeBron, Wade, or Bosh, their crunch time mishaps and propensity to lay the occasional egg may catch up with them against an eager, young team like the Sixers. The Heat lead the season series 2-0, but both of those Philly losses came during their 3-13 start. Now, the Sixers have the balanced scoring attack and offensive production in transition to keep pace with Miami’s preferred up-tempo pace.
Surely, no defender relishes the task of matching up with LeBron or Wade. Andre Iguodala, though, is a defender capable of slowing down either man (or at least good enough to make them work for what they get). The Heat are far from invincible, though. Miami’s lack of a post presence the likes of Howard means the Sixers won’t be out-muscled over the stretch of a seven game series like they were in ’09 against Orlando. Jrue Holliday would be able to take advantage of Miami’s shoddy point guard play, too. Questionable defenders Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby can’t keep up with Holiday, who is proving to be equally effective as a ball handler and an off the ball scorer as the season wears on.
The bench, vital to the Sixers success thus far, would need to keep up their league-leading point production to take down the Heat. The Heat’s trio of stars will get theirs, but that’s fine if the team can limit the damage from Miami’s role players. If the Sixers can force the ball to the ice-cold Mike Miller, the brick-handed Erick Dampier, or the offensively inept Joell Anthony, Lou Williams and co. could prove to be the difference in a series.
With 14 games to go, it’s a little soon for Doug Collins to start putting together the Miami game plan just yet. However, all playoff-eligible teams are definitely aware of where they stand at this point, and there’s only so much wiggle room left in the Eastern playoff picture. Before they worry about their first-round opponent, whether it be Miami or not, the Sixers will continue to duel with the Knicks for the 6th seed down the stretch.