The next 10 days will be the most important stretch in the 76ers’ schedule this entire NBA season. It will tell them – and their fans – what kind of team this really is. It will tell everybody if the Sixers can compete with the big boys in the NBA, if they’re worthy of sharing the stage with the game’s biggest stars and if they’re worth plunking down your hard-earned cash to see them play.
It’s been a terrific season so far for this frisky 76ers team and with the way the NBA season has been compressed because of the two-month lockout the Sixers have an excellent chance to win their first division title in more than a decade. Their youth and depth give them a big edge because that hectic schedule forces teams to play four or five games in a week and sometimes three games in as many nights.
But so far the Sixers have mostly fattened up on the NBA’s lambs – they’ve won 15 games and 12 of them have been against teams with losing records. Of course, it’s better to beat bad teams than to lose to them and the Sixers haven’t just won those games, they’ve run away with most of them.
Still, that weak schedule is the main reason the Sixers haven’t been drawing big crowds to their home games even though they have a roster full of personable and dynamic players who share the ball and play defense and scramble for loose balls and do all the things real basketball fans are supposed to like. The problem is that they’ve been playing that great basketball mostly against teams that are not only bad, but boring. How boring? Quick – name a Charlotte Bobcat …
That’s also the reason why, nationally, hardly anybody has noticed that the Sixers’ fabulous start has pushed them ahead of the media-darling Celtics and Knicks in the Atlanta Division standings or that only three teams in the entire NBA have won more games than they have.
That lack of recognition and respect could change in the next week or so as fans finally pack the Spectrum-CoreStates Center-First Union Center-Wachovia Center-Wells Fargo Center to watch Sixers take on the NBA’s marquee teams and players.
It started on Monday night, when Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic came to town and the 76ers promptly ran them out of it – the Sixers won 74-69 and the game wasn’t as close as the final score indicates. It was an impressive victory over a good, but flawed, team.
It gets even more interesting the rest of the way. On Wednesday, it’s Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls and on Friday it’s LeBron James and the Miami Heat before the Sixers hit the road for the only time in this critical stretch to play the unheralded, but talented Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.
Then it’s back home for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday and Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.
Realistically, the Sixers should be happy to go 3-4 during that stretch, although they do have a couple of advantages. For one, six of the seven games are at home. For another, three of the games are against western teams on long road trips. That’s when the Sixers youth and depth come into play. They have young legs and lots of them and that depth has already worn down inferior foes.
Now the Sixers get to test themselves against superior foes, the teams with the superstar players, the teams that are on television all the time, the teams that they must beat if they want to be considered one of the NBA’s best teams. The Sixers don’t have to win all of those games, but they need to win some of them and they need to be competitive in all of them.
That will also draw in the fans. If they see that the 76ers can go toe-to-toe with the Bulls and the Heat and the Lakers they’ll finally see that this team, even without a true superstar, is for real and worth supporting. And that could prove to be the biggest victory of all.