After the Saturday night’s 96-85 victory over the Utah Jazz, the 76ers face a favorable run of games in their next five matchups. However, looking further down the road, viewing the next ten games, it’s alerting to note the daunting challenge that lies ahead.
The first five opponents in the next 10 games have combined for a 90-126 record. Three of those games will be in the Well-Fargo Center. The road games come against tissue-soft division foes the Raptors and Nets. The only team currently with a winning record is the Denver Nuggets who are distracted by the ‘Melodrama and carry a 5-13 road tally.
Following the lighter five game slate is a scary challenge. The Sixers will play three of the top six Eastern Conference teams and the League’s best, the San Antonio Spurs. These ball clubs hold a combined 117-59 record. Keep in mind that the Sixers will face the Knicks in back-to-back games, one at home for each.
Sitting 7th in the Eastern Conference standings at 18-25, we will be clawing with the Bobcats, Pacers, Bucks and Pistons for two playoff spots. It’s crucial to see how this team competes against winnable competition, followed by how they respond to stronger teams in the final five.
Let’s take a look at the next ten foes, the to watch for each opponent and the each game’s X-factor.
vs. Phoenix Suns
On December 29th the Sixers took down the Suns in Phoenix. It was a highly entertaining ball game with little defense from either side resulting in a 123-110 score. The high-paced Suns will look to get out and run while keeping a high-tempo offense, something the 7-6 are able to counter ranking third in the league in fast break points.
player to watch: PG Steve Nash
The two-time NBA MVP is still the leader of the Suns at the age of 36. He leads this team in scoring and assists with 17 and 10.1, respectively. Slowing down Nash in pick-and-roll situations will be the toughest challenge. Nash thrives on attacking big men who get switched to him while defending the pick-and-roll.
x-factor: C Channing Frye
One of the softer big mans in the League, Frye has developed into a three-point shooting threat for the Suns. His trey-ball percentage has dropped from 43.9 percent last year to 36.9 today. When he gets going though, the Suns respond well. Frye averages 14.7 points per game in wins and 8.5 points in losses. Last time these teams met, Frye was held to four points on 2-7 shooting.
@ Toronto Raptors
We’ve already lost to the Raptors twice this season, but both came early in the season during the team’s 3-13 opening. The Raptors have struggled mightily this season with the loss of Bosh and are 13-31 without him. At the moment they are on a seven game losing streak.
player to watch: C Andrea Bargnani
Averaging 21.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game, he nearly gives up that same amount on the other end. Bargnani rarely ventures in the painted area but has a threatening stroke with a long range. Defensively he is a liability, although things will work in his favor when his toughest challenge will be facing Marreese Speights. As we all know Bargnani has killed the Sixers over the last two years.
x-factor: SG DeMar DeRozan
The high-flying young gun from USC has been hot of late. In the last four contests he’s tallied 24.3 points a game on 47.4 percent shooting. DeRozan is the ultimate slasher and shies away from long-distance shots. Keeping him out of the paint will be key to limiting his success.
vs. Memphis Grizzlies
This will be the first time these teams have met. Last season these teams split their two game series. The Grizzlies and 76ers alike, are both fighting for bottom seeds in the playoff standings. Out in the Western conference the Grizzlies sit ninth and 3.5 games behind the eight seed Portland Trailblazers. With the Blazers banged up and the Nuggets (7th seed) likely to be depleted soon, the Grizzlies could sneak into the postseason.
player to watch: SG Rudy Gay
Everyone screamed blasphemy this off-season when Gay was signed to a lucrative five-year $80 million deal. Gay has played consistently well averaging 20.1 points and six rebounds per game. His shooting percentages are at a career high in field goal, three point and free throw attempts. Andre Iguodala will be assigned the duty of shutting Gay down.
x-factor: C Marc Gasol
Gasol is nothing like his brother Pau whose won a pair of rings in Los Angeles. However, anytime the Sixers face a big man who possess a wide body and post up moves, he becomes an intricate threat. Gasol only played in one meeting last season with the Sixers and scored 19 points on 7-10 shooting in a winning effort.
vs. Denver Nuggets
With the Nuggets constantly distracted by the Carmelo Anthony trade speculation, who knows how focused this team will be coming to the Wells-Fargo center. Thanks to the Nets-Nuggets-Pistons proposed deal falling through, expect Anthony to be present — possibly distracted — when the inconsistent Nuggets pay a visit.
player to watch: C NeNe Hilario
Quietly having a fabulous year totaling 15.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. The most impressive stat is how effective he’s been, ranking higher than players like Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo and Carmelo Anthony in player efficiency rating according to John Hollinger of ESPN.
x-factor: SG J.R. Smith
J.R. Smith is a classic example of a player who can win you a ball game or shoot you out of one. He is one of the streakiest three-point shooters in the league, but when he is on, he’s arguably the deadliest shooter in the League. Hopefully the Sixers will catch him on one of his off nights and witness him launch three’s aimlessly harming his team’s chances.
@ New Jersey Nets
Owner Mikhail Prokhorov pulled the plug on the Carmelo deal, making it near inevitable that he’ll be heading to New York. The Nets are 12-32 and have made little progress under the new ownership and head coach Avery Johnson. New Jersey is 3-8 in the new year with those wins over the Bulls, Jazz and Pistons. The Sixers have already defeated this lowly squad twice.
Player to watch: C Brook Lopez
Lopez is their leading scorer averaging 19.1 points per game. Lopez is not a threat on the glass though, only grabbing 5.8 rebounds per game. It’s astonishing to me that a 7-footer who plays 34 minutes a game can merely grab six rebounds per game. At that height, playing those minutes constantly in the post, wouldn’t the ball just clank off the rim to you six times?
X-factor: PF Kris Humphries
The leading rebounder for the Nets we have to box him out. The two times we faced the Nets Humphries grabbed 14 rebounds in each ball game and 11 offensive boards overall. Monitoring Humphries will be key to limiting their second chance opportunities.
New York Knicks back to back, home and away
Consecutive games against the surprising Knicks. Amar’e Stoudemire has lifted this team to a playoff contender with help from point guard Raymond Felton. Lately the Knicks have been struggling dropping their last six matches. Head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system doesn’t preach defense as much as others around the league and it shows with their late game defensive lapses.
Player to watch: PF Amar’e Stoudemire
The leader and the best player. Stoudemire has catapulted himself into the MVP discussion since making the New York Knicks relevant again. Amar’e went from a player who was constantly set up by Steve Nash as a finisher to being able to dominate defenders with an array of 1-on-1 moves. His presence on offense elevates each of his teammates.
X-factor: F Danillo Gallinari
The Italian forward causes mismatch problems for all defenders. His 6-10 frame and ability to score gives opposing teams headaches. He features a deep shooting range and in Knicks’ wins he averages 17.1 points per game. Don’t be surprised if Igoudala is forced to guard the dynamic forward for major minutes in the game.
@ Atlanta Hawks
Hawks have been hot of late winning eight of their last ten ball games. They were ridiculed last season after playing pitifully in the postseason, limping past the Milwaukee Bucks before being swept by the Magic. Idiotically — depending on who you ask — they gave shooting guard Joe Johnson a max contract. Johnson is a good player, but as a leader has fallen apart in critical moments. Johnson would be best suited as the No. 2 go to guy on a championship contender.
Player to watch: C Al Horford
Horford is having the best season of his young career putting up highs with 16.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. When the Hawks and Sixers played in the second game of the season, Horford grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds with 20 points in a winning outing.
X-factor: G Jamal Crawford
Last season’s sixth man player of the year has seen a mild drop in production this year. Crawford can be very streaky but this team thrives when he is hitting shots. He doesn’t contribute much besides as a scorer and isn’t the type to set up others for easy buckets. In 2011 he’s averaging 20 points per game shooting 44.9 percent from the field.
vs. Orlando Magic
These teams have split their two game series this season. The last time in Orlando, the Sixers pitifully collapsed thanks to a Jason Richardson AND 1 four point play. With Dwight Howard fouled out, the Sixers still couldn’t manage to steal a victory on the road.
Player to watch: C Dwight Howard
Philadunkia’s home team literally has no answer for Dwight Howard in the paint. Howard exposes the 76ers of their biggest flaw, an inability to contain a strong post presence. Dwight has won back-to-back defensive player of the year awards and his shot blocking ability is second to none. We’ll be hacking Dwight constantly just like we did in the previous two games sending him to the charity stripe 39 times. Dwight is impossible to stop around the rim, but from the free throw line he shoots a poor 58.7%.
X-factor: SG Jason Richardson
Jason Richardson has been a pleasant addition for this Magic team becoming the second leading scorer behind Dwight. J-Rich has pitched in with 14.5 points per game and has hit big shots in critical moments. The Magic aren’t afraid to let it fly from behind-the-arc averaging 25.2 three-point attempts, most in the NBA. J-Rich will be the leading proponent to the long distance shooting.
vs. San Antonio Spurs
At 37-7 the Spurs lead the entire NBA with the best record. They’ll be coming into Philly for the ball game and are 13-5 on the road. The Spurs have very similar fixtures as from years past but have been blessed with good health. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are both back to 100 percent health-wise and looking back to championship form. However, the younger guys George Hill, DaJuan Blair and Gary Neal have been key to the resurgence of this once dynasty. With all that being said, the humble leader Tim Duncan is averaging 13.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game on the downward part of his career.
Player to watch: Manu Ginobili
Manu has led the team in scoring this season and really turns it on late in games. Ginobili has stretched opponents out more than usual upping his three point field goal attempts from a career average of four to 6.2 per game this year. When it comes to closing ball games, Manu is the Spurs’ version of Kobe Bryant. He posses a clutch-gene that few in the league can replicate.
X-factor: F Richard Jefferson
Richard Jefferson joined the Spurs last season and struggled to fit in. Over the off-season he dedicated himself to becoming a three-point shooting threat. Embracing the role as a spot up knock down three point shooter, especially from the baseline. Jefferson is shooting a career high 41.5% from beyond the arc and is still has the ability to attack the basket.