By John Carroll | Scouts Inc.
The Philadelphia 76ers are in a downward spiral and are struggling to regain their winning ways from earlier in the season. They are only 9-11 since the All-Star break and their biggest strength all season -- their defense -- is failing them. Defensively, the Sixers allow just 88 points per game, while holding opponents to just 42 percent shooting from the field (second in the league). In the past week, however, Philly has allowed the Wizards, Heat and Raptors to each shoot better than 47 percent.
Earlier in the season, the Sixers overachieved thanks to their teamwork. Now, they look fatigued and there appear to be some internal issues. This may be due to a lack of defined roles and friction between some players and coach Doug Collins. Also, the Sixers struggle at the end of games because they don’t have a closer -- a player who can make big baskets on his own.
The Orlando Magic are a team in disarray. They have lost five games in a row for the first time since January 2007. There is a disconnect between Dwight Howard and coach Stan Van Gundy. Howard has held this team hostage all season and it has affected the team drastically. The Magic have gone from the third seed in the Eastern Conference to a 5-seed in the past week. To compound the losing, the Magic play seven of their 12 remaining games on the road. Eight of those 12 games are against playoff teams or teams trying to get in.
Key injuries: The Sixers’ Andre Iguodala has a left-eye contusion but played in the last game. Orlando’s Ryan Anderson has missed the past two games due to a sprained ankle and is day-to-day. Hedo Turkoglu is out three weeks with a facial fracture.
Key matchup: Magic center Dwight Howard vs. Sixers center Spencer Hawes
All eyes will be on Howard in the next game. The recent comments by Van Gundy regarding Howard's wanting him fired have all the media attention on Orlando. Thursday night, just hours after Van Gundy’s comments, Howard did nothing to help his reputation. In a game the Magic desperately needed to win, Howard came up empty, scoring just eight points. He also had five turnovers and five fouls as the Magic fell by 16 to the Knicks.
Howard needs to get back to being an impact player and help his team return to its winning ways. The best way he can do that is to dominate the matchup with Spencer Hawes and the Sixers on Saturday. Howard leads the Magic in four of the most important statistical categories: points, rebounds, steals and blocks. He needs to stop sulking and complaining and go out and score 20-plus points, grab 14 rebounds and block more than two shots. Hawes has had a very nice season for Philly averaging 9.7 point and 7.8 rebounds per game.
Key stat: Turnovers
The 76ers will be in every game they play because of two things: their defense and ability to protect the rock. The Sixers take tremendous care of the ball, turning it over only 11.1 times per game. They lead the NBA in this category. This bodes well for them in the playoffs, where defenses are locked in on an opponent over the course of a seven-game series. Turnovers are killers, especially in the playoffs, when scoring is much lower. Collins has gotten Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Evan Turner and Andre Iguodala, who get most of the touches, to value the basketball. Holiday is the only player on the team who averages more than two turnovers per game.
Key play: Defense
This will be a game between two of the top defenses in the NBA. In just a season and a half, Collins has the Sixers ranked in the top three most important defensive categories. They are first in points allowed (88.0), second in field goal percentage defense (.422) and third in 3-point field goal defense (.315). Collins has players with young legs and athletic bodies and has been able to teach them how to defend at a high level. They are excellent in transition defense and they protect the paint. In addition, they defend the pick and roll and screening action with all five players executing their defensive assignments well.
Orlando is also one of the league’s top defensive units. It allows opponents 92.7 points per game, which ranks fourth, and allows opponents to shoot only 44 percent from the field. The Magic have difficulty defending the perimeter and keeping the ball out of the paint, but because of Howard’s presence, teams struggle to score in the paint. The Magic are second in the league, allowing only 36.8 points in the paint per game.
Key deficiency: Bench
A strong bench is important during any season, but it is essential during the 2011-12 compressed schedule. A bench provides rest for starters, limits fatigue and protects them from deep foul problems. In addition, a strong bench that brings energy to the game can change the momentum and outcome of a game.
Philadelphia has the No. 3-ranked bench in the NBA. Lou Williams, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young are players that could be starters on many other teams. The Philadelphia bench has a plus-10.8 differential compared to its opponents. Meanwhile the Magic have the worst bench in the NBA. They have a minus-11.5 point production. The Magic’s bench, which had been a strength of theirs in years past, has not been able to give Van Gundy any production this season. J.J. Redick (10.7 points per game) is the only player who has provided consistent bench production.