The 76ers' (17-62; 5th-Atlantic Division, 14th-Eastern Conference) three-game road trip comes to an end at the Time Warner Cable Arena, where they'll take on the playoff-bound Charlotte Bobcats (40-39; 3rd-Southeast Division, 7th-Eastern Conference). Both teams are coming off of Friday losses; the Sixers bowed to the Memphis Grizzlies, 117-95, while Charlotte stubbed its toe against the lowly Boston Celtics, 106-103.
Tonight, the Sixers will be looking to avenge a lopsided setback to the Bobcats that occurred 10 days ago. The 123-93 defeat marked one of the Sixers' more unsightly performances of the season. Charlotte jumped out to a strong start, establishing a 12-point margin after one quarter, before widening the gap to 25 points by halftime. In cruising past the Sixers, the Bobcats picked up their second 30-point win in the span of six days. According to the Charlotte Observer, prior to this stretch, Charlotte had managed only three such victories over a 791-game period.
The 76ers will be trying to force a split of their four-game season series with the Bobcats. The Sixers knocked off Charlotte on January 15th, 95-92, with Thaddeus Young connecting on a late three-pointer that proved to be the difference. Following the win, the Sixers went on to set a franchise mark by dropping 18 consecutive home games at the Wells Fargo Center, a streak that ended on March 31st, when the team also halted its NBA record-tying 26-game overall losing skid.
In their loss to the Memphis Grizzlies last night, the 76ers had a tough time defending the interior. Memphis' frontline set the tone, as Marc Gasol, the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and Zach Randolph, a double-double machine, imposed their will inside. The Grizzlies finished the game with 13 more rebounds, 13 more free throws made, and 12 more points scored in the paint than the Sixers. Additionally, the Memphis starting frontcourt of Gasol, Randolph, and James Johnson combined to produce 41 points and 27 rebounds.
The Sixers' struggles to contain opposing big men have surfaced in other recent games as well. On Wednesday, the Toronto Raptors' promising 21-year old center Jonas Valanciunas deposited a career-high 26 points, while collecting a game-best 12 rebounds. Last Saturday, 37-year old Kevin Garnett returned to the Brooklyn Nets line-up after a 19-game injury absence, and managed to finish with 10 points and four rebounds in just 13 minutes of action; rookie Mason Plumlee helped the Nets' low-post cause by adding 16 points and seven rebounds off the bench.
Tonight, the Sixers will have to face for the second time in 10 days Al Jefferson, arguably the most impactful true center in the NBA this season. The Eastern Conference Player of the Month for March, Jefferson pounded out 25 point and 10 rebounds at the Wells Fargo Center; his night was done after three quarters of play. The Sixers, however, aren't the only team that Jefferson has victimized as of late. He delivered 32 points and 10 rebounds against the Boston Celtics last night, giving him a double-double for a sixth consecutive game, and 39th time overall this season.
In trying to figure out how the Charlotte Bobcats have been able to dramatically reverse their fortunes under NBA Coach of the Year candidate Steve Clifford, one need not look too far past the team's defensive success. Charlotte is allowing only 97.2 points per game this season, the league's fourth-lowest total. A year ago, the Bobcats gave up an Eastern Conference-high 102.7 points on average. According to Clifford, the defensive turnaround hasn't been the result of implementing revolutionary new concepts, or out-of-the-box schemes. Instead, Clifford has attributed the progress to Charlotte adopting a different mindset, playing tough, and executing basic defensive principles. So far, the changes have resulted in a 19-win improvement, and a post-season berth for just the second time in franchise's 10-year history.
Prior to yesterday's 106-103 road loss to the Boston Celtics, the Bobcats had strung together a season-high five straight wins. Not too surprisingly, their defense was sound during the surge, keeping opponents under 95 points in all five victories. Last night, however, Charlotte permitted one of the lowest scoring teams in the league to crack the century mark, and convert over 50 percent of its field goal attempts. Even though the Bobcats were without starting point guard Kemba Walker, it didn't sound like Clifford was ready to allow his group to use the absence as a crutch.
"I'm really more concerned about the guys on the floor," Clifford told reporters afterwards. "We had very little defense. We just didn't put much into the game."
Charlotte's loss, coupled with the Washington Wizard's win at Orlando, dropped the Bobcats back into seventh place in the Eastern Conference; if the season were to have ended last night, Charlotte would be matched up with the second-seed Indiana Pacers in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs.