It took just two weeks for the euphoric hysteria that surrounded the surprisingly awesome 2011-2012 edition of the Philadelphia 76ers to turn into the lukewarm realization of what many had known from the beginning. 

The truth is that the Sixers are a middle of the road team in the Eastern Conference that lack the one true spark that could propel them to the upper echelon of the NBA.  Sure, they are well coached and are fundamentally sound but in the end they don’t just have the personnel to contend for a championship. 

Yet, they never were supposed to be considered a contender, were they?

Still, as the all-star break approaches they sit in first place in the Atlantic Division and sit in 3rd place in the East. 

How did they get here?

After all, their leading scorer doesn’t even start, their lone all-star averages less than 13 points a game and their starting point guard doesn’t even lead the team in assists.  They are not the picturesque image of an offensive power by any stretch of the imagination.  But, with this team they don’t have to be.

The Sixers, quite simply, win with defense. Their offense is set up through forcing turnovers and getting out on transition.  They don’t have to outscore anybody because they don’t let anyone else score.  Doug Collins’ bunch has been tops in the league in defense all season, allowing  a little over 87 points per game. 

It also helps to maximize every offensive possession, since don’t the Sixers don’t have Kevin Durant, Lebron James, or Carmelo Anthony at their disposal.  They do just that by protecting the basketball.  They are the best in the NBA in turnovers per game.

Yet, there are signs that Sixers 1st half tease of success is about to be quickly evaporated.  After the 7-6 knocked off the Lakers in a thriller on February 6th, things have gotten a bit ugly.  They have lost 5 out of their last 7, including 3 straight for the first time this season; and the team’s flaws that has caused concern all season long, have come back to bite them.

The only victories during this recent stretch have come against the lowly Bobcats and Cavaliers. 

What’s gone wrong?

A.  Jodie Meeks

Meeks is consistently inconsistent ; which makes him absolutely invaluable as a starter to the team.  The bad shooting/great shooting see-saw must stop.  The Sixers starting unit could use Evan Turner’s offense in the firts five especially if Meeks’ isn’t paying dividends in the starting role. 

B.  Half-Court Issues.

If the Sixers aren’t getting transition opportunities, their offense is inept.  Neither Jrue Holiday or Andre Iguodala can seem to run a half-court offense effectively.  The result is bad shots or nothing but jump shots.  There’s been a tremendous lacking of the inside-out game which ultimately cost them a victory against the Mavericks; in a game in which they had controlled the entire first half.

C.  Soft.

Even before Spencer Hawes had his injury issues, the Sixers had no opposing presence on interior offensively or defensively.  It’s been well documented throughout the season.  Though, Hawes, Nik Vucevic, and even Lavoy Allen have talent, they can’t rebound and dominate the paint against the better big men in the league.  Is anyone else longing for Demarcus Cousins?  Hell, some of us would settle for Jason Thompson at this point.

While the Sixers are having their own issues, the Celtics are somewhat getting themselves together and there is a monster growing in Madison Square Garden.

With Linsanity being the main exponent, the Knicks are looking becoming a force that most thought they would be when the season began.  When Carmelo Anthony returns, they could become an unstoppable force (defense aside).  Also, in an under the radar move, J. R. Smith could be a critical signing to compliment both Lin and Anthony.  Smith is what Jodie Meeks wishes he could be. 

Both the Knicks and Celtics are now only 4 games behind the Sixers in the Atlantic standings.  

With the Sixers play on the decline, and the rising of the competition, the reality of that we all thought about this young, growing team is slowly starting to become true. 

It seems that the Knicks and maybe even the Celtics will pass them by and the Sixers will fall to the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack.  But, ultimately that’s where many thought they would be. 

In the end, that’s the question. 

What are these guys?  Are they a legitimate contender who could make noise in the playoffs or a growing team whose accomplishment would simply be winning a round in the playoffs?

Two weeks ago the former, would have been the answer.  Now, though the Sixers will face their toughest challenge to avoid the fate of the latter.

So, who are they?

I guess we’re about to find out.

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