Sixers fans, incredibly, we have 11 games remaining.  Can you believe how quickly the season has come and gone?  Unlike what we expected — a long, dreadful, losing year — the Sixers have played at an optimal level for their respective talent pool. 

Sitting sixth in the East, in this preview we look ahead at two critical looming match-ups against legit championship contenders, a pair of potential snoozers and a couple of playoff contending teams trying to claw for the last seed in their conference. 

@ Miami Heat

Two teams that climbed in the postseason standings with completely different built rosters.  The Heat are comprised of a collection of superstars (Wade, Bosh, LeBron) and misfits that surround them with no consistent role-playing threat.  They have a few shooters, some useless big men and a young coach in Erik Spoelstra who acts as Pat Riley’s puppet. 

Our beloved Sixers on the other hand, lack a superstar, have a seasoned head coach and win by playing solid team ball.  We have great team chemistry and on almost every night a new leading scorer emerges.  Does that formula work in the postseason?  Most likely not.  It’s nearly impossible to succeed in today’s NBA without a superstar.  Late in games,  when we desperately are in search for a bucket, we lack a closer.  Most teams hold that duty for their star, we don’t have one. 

(Note:  I didn’t put LeBron James as my player to watch or x-factor.  My reasoning:  LeBron is going to give you something close to a triple-double, have a few powerful dunks and amaze you with a come-from-behind block in transition.  His play is consistent and hard to stop.  So the Sixers know what’s coming, where the other two may vary.)

Player To Watch: SG Dwayne Wade

Astonishingly, Dwayne Wade got LeBron James — the best player in the NBA — to pair up with him and Bosh in South Beach.  Their first season together has been a roller-coaster ride as everyone in America criticizes each game like the world depends on it.  Nevertheless, this team is at its best when Wade closes out ball games in clutch situations.  With Iguodala occupying LeBron, who will be assigned the daunting duty of defending Wade?  I expect to see a mix between Jodie Meeks, Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner following Wade.  How they fare, is another question in itself.

X-factor: F Chris Bosh

Great news for the Sixers: Bosh hesitates from the post!  Instead he wanders around the top of the key and anywhere in foul-line extended range.  It works in our favor since our biggest weakness is defending dominating bigs who have an array of moves with their back to the basket.  Still, we must not ignore his abilities, Bosh can catch fire and cannot be left open. 

Sacramento Kings

Only a short week ago, the Sixers bounced back from a two game skid defeating a half-hearted hopeless Kings team 102-80 in Sacramento.  Sacramento has the fourth worst record in the entire league.  Tyreke Evans, last season’s rookie of the year, hasn’t played since mid-February and the his fellow teammates have struggled in his absence going 5-14 over that span. 

Player To Watch: C DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins has had a pleasant rookie season totaling 14.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.  It was torture watching our big men, particularly Spencer Hawes and Tony Battie, attempting to slow down the immature 6-11, 270 pound 20 year old.  Hawes and Battie’s best hope was fouling him, picking up three a piece.  DeMarcus finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds. 

X-factor:  SG Marcus Thornton

The former LSU standout has embraced his new franchise by averaging 21.8 points per game on 48 percent from the field.  Thornton was traded for power forward Carl Landry and has blossomed at the two position for the Kings.  In our first bout he was ineffective only posting six points and missing 9 of 12 shots. 

@ Chicago Bulls

On January 7th Jodie Meeks lit up the Bulls for 24 points, willing the Sixers to victory in one of his best games as a member of the 7-6.  It might take a similar outburst from Meeks for the Doug Collins’ led team to stand a chance against the best team in the Eastern Conference.  Chicago, under new head Tom Thibodeau — the long-time Celtics assistant — has reshaped their style of play with an emphasis on defending the rim.  The Bulls rank second in the league in opposing teams scoring. 

Player To Watch: PG Derrick Rose

Rose is the clear-cut favorite to capture the Most Valuable Player honor.  Elevating his team from an eighth seed the prior season, to first in the East behind his 24.9 points and 7.8 assists per game.  Rose’s speed can be devastating for opposing defenses.  For the Sixers, the key will be help defense when he tries to penetrate. 

X-factor:  SF Luol Deng

If Deng gets hot shooting the rock it’ll be very difficult to slow down the Bulls.  The former Blue Devil benefits from the attention garnered by his fellow point guard.  In our two previous games facing Deng, he’s gone for 22 points a piece while hitting on 18 of 31 shots. 

Houston Rockets

Essentially a must-win game for the Rockets, who in the West, currently sit one seed out of the playoffs.  With news of Rudy Gay’s season-ending injury to Memphis, there is hope for the Rockets to squeeze themselves into a first round matchup against the Spurs.  The last time these ball clubs met, Philadelphia fended off 36 points from Kyle Lowry en route to a 114-105 win in Texas. 

Player To Watch: SG Kevin Martin

K-Mart is attempting to revitalize his career with the Rockets after an injury-plagued past with the Kings.  He’s leading his team in scoring with 23.2 points per game which is strong enough for tenth in the association.  Martin’s scoring abilities extend to beyond-the-arc where he is very streaky.  Lately, his streaky shooting has tilted in the Rockets favor as he’s hit 2.83 attempts in his last six games. 

X-factor: PG Kyle Lowry

Which Lowry will show up?  The one who went off for a season-high 36 points behind 18 field goal attempts, or the facilitating guard who leads his team in assists at 6.6 a contest.  Following the all-star break, Lowry was entrusted as the franchise point guard ensuing Aaron Brooks being sent to Phoenix. 

New Jersey Nets

Our Atlantic division rivals look forward to a bright future at the hands of head coach Avery Johnson and Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov.  The future includes a move being made from the current home of Newark, New Jersey to Brooklyn, New York.  But what does every great franchise need?  A marquee star to represent its brand, and that’s where Deron Williams comes into play.  Although, there are concerns that the former Jazz point guard could bolt out of town once his contract expires in the summer of 2012. 

Player To Watch:  PG Deron Williams

Williams has been donning Nets’ gear for 13 games thus far.  He’s missed five of those due to a wrist injury and the team is 3-5 in the ones he’s played.  Pending any unforeseeable changes, Williams will be starting against the Sixers once they meet on April Fools Day.  With the all-star guard the Nets have a bright future, without him, a treacherous road towards building a contender. 

X-factor:  SG Anthony Morrow

Leading the Nets in three-point shooting, Morrow has contributed for 101 three-pointers on 43 percent from long distance.  The Sixers have done a fantastic job limiting his scoring to six points per game in the three times these teams have faced one another.

@ Milwaukee Bucks

Embarrassed, stunned, ashamed; all emotions felt after the horrific loss in Milwaukee only a few weeks ago.  We came out flat and uninspired getting demolished 102-74 after defeating the juggernaut Celtics the night before.  At the time, I called it the ultimate let-down game following a monumental win.  Also, I stated that we shouldn’t harp on that loss as this team will assuredly bounce back.  This game will showcase our character and how we respond to adversity.  Unfortunately though, it’ll be the second game, once again, of a back-to-back weekend. 

Player To Watch:  C Andrew Bogut

Behind Dwight Howard, Bogut is the best defensive center in the league.  Pulling down a double-double each night to go along with a league-leading 2.63 blocks per game, it’s tough to attack the Bucks in the paint with the lengthy Bogut as the last line of defense.  It’ll be important for the Sixers to beat Bogut up the floor and get easy buckets in transition.

X-factor: PG Brandon Jennings

Brandon Jennings had a sensational rookie year assisting the Bucks into a playoff spot.  However, his tendency of forcing shots has grown worse as his career has progressed.  Jennings is a classic case of a player who can win you ball games when he catches heat, or shoot you out of one on a cold night.  At times he’s a ball-hog, other times he’s a highlight reel, you just never know which side of him you’ll get.

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