Fifty games in and this season had potential to be much more than what it has been. Robbed of valuable time by injuries and now possibly jilted by the looming trade deadline, this is when the playoff hunt intensifies.
Of course, this is applicable to both the Philadelphia 76ers and the Bucks. Andrew Bynum has sat out all season, Thad Young recently strained a hamstring and Jason Richardson needs knee surgery. The Sixers are exploring the trade value of Evan Turner and Nick Young. On the other side, nearly every Bucks player is available for the right price. Milwaukee had only suffered relatively minor injuries until Larry Sanders bruised his lower back on Feb. 5, which is more significant than anyone would have thought coming into the season. He is doing for the Bucks what Bynum was projected to do as the centerpiece in Philadelphia. Sanders still leads the NBA in blocks, though Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka has tied the race with Sanders recuperating.
On top of it all, the 76ers are three games behind the Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings, sitting at the ninth spot. Dealing Andre Iguodala and acquiring Bynum seemed like a great deal until the injuries left Philadelphia scrapping for the eighth seed in a way Milwaukee knows all too well.
76ers: Jrue Holiday, Nick Young, Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen, Spencer Hawes
Bucks: Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ersan Ilyasova, Samuel Dalembert
With Sanders listed as day-to-day, Dalembert remains a starter. With the exception of Monday’s brick against Washington, he’s been playing great ball, recording 59 points, 35 rebounds, 10 blocks and six steals and shooting 66.7 percent in the three games preceding the Wizards match. Using the same criteria — throwing out the Sixers’ recent embarrassment at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers — Hawes is performing comparably. He’s not scoring as much as Dalembert, but he is also doing a better job of keeping his turnovers in check. Hawes also accounts for other scoring by facilitating at a higher rate, whereas Dalembert cleans the offensive glass more efficiently.
While Dalembert vs. Hawes will be important, the guard play will be key, especially if Turner draws the assignment of defending Jennings or Ellis on any number of possessions. Both Bucks guards have the speed and athleticism to beat Turner off the dribble. Coupled with the Bucks’ faster pace of play (94.5 possessions per 48 minutes to the 76ers’ 90.6), this should give Jennings and Ellis plenty of opportunities to score nearer the rim or dish to the teammate left open when an extra defender rotates. There is more riding on the duo’s decision-making than normal, which is saying something considering Ellis’ and Jennings’ chucking tendencies.
If this turns into a shoot-out between the guards — and, let’s face it, with Jennings, Ellis and Nick Young all starting in the game, that’s a very real possibility — pace of play is going to be the only thing that keeps the Bucks in it. Ellis and Jennings are both shooting below 40 percent while Nick Young and Holiday are shooting 41.4 and 45.4 percent, respectively. Assuming those averages hold up, the 3.9 extra possessions could mean all the difference in the world.
It would be remiss not to mention Mbah a Moute left Monday’s game with a sore left leg and how Turner, with his high basketball IQ, will know to work Prince’s leg and hope to use this knowledge to score more than his average 13.6 ppg. Ilyasova’s return to form could be a crutch for the front court, if this situation arises.
Both of these teams are digging in their heels and both will enter tonight knowing what is on the line long-term and short-term. Playoffs or bust? Certainly, but each individual player must also show up to show their value to their current organization in a push to stay put or — in a best case scenario — entice a sureshot playoff team to make a play for them.