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By Spike Eskin

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The toughest stretch so far of the Sixers season began Monday night against the Orlando Magic. Though defending Dwight Howard is always a test, Orlando is reeling, and they’re definitely not a top tier team right now. The Chicago Bulls however, are very much a championship contender.

After two consecutive .500 seasons, the Bulls and Derrick Rose took a big leap last year, with their 62 wins the most in the NBA, and the point guard winning the league’s MVP. This year, they look even better. The Bulls come in 18-5, the best record in the Eastern Conference and second best in the league. Rose has been excellent, averaging 23 points and nearly 8 assists.

Statistically, the Sixers and Bulls are nearly identical. They rank #1 and #2 respectively in defensive efficiency, they rank #4 (Bulls) and #5 (Sixers) in offensive efficiency, they rank #1 (Sixers) and #2 (Bulls) in point differential, and both teams are scoring about 97 points per game. The Bulls schedule has been more difficult than that of the Sixers.

Both teams are dealing with significant injuries. The Sixers will still be without center Spencer Hawes, who will miss his 8th game with an Achilles strain. The Sixers offense has not been the same without Hawes, whose passing from the high post was key to spacing and scoring. The Bulls will be without small forward Luol Deng and guard Richard “Rip” Hamilton. Deng who has become a key contributor for the Bulls, and was having his best year to date until he was sidelined with a torn wrist ligmament. His recovery is said to be going well, but even the best case scenarios don’t have him returning until this weekend. Hamilton is suffering from a thigh bruise, and has also been recovering from other injuries as well.  Hamilton has been effective when healthy, giving the Bulls the backcourt scorer they so desperately needed to pair with Rose. The Sixers will have rookie center Nikola Vucevic back and available, and will get his first minutes since he injured his left knee in a game at Miami ten days ago. Vucevic dressed for the Olrando game, but did not play.

The Sixers depleted frontcourt will have their hands full keeping Joakim Noah off the glass. He’s averaging over nine rebounds a game, which is actually a little low for him. His average is over 11 rebounds a game over the last ten games. Almost four of his rebounds per game are offensive. They can’t afford to have him do the same kind of damage that the Nets Kris Humphries did last week for the Nets. If he does, the big rebounder+elite point guard=loss scenario could see a repeat.

The Sixers did have some success against the Bulls last season, taking two of three regular season games.

There are still tickets available for tonight’s game at the Wells Fargo Center at sixers.com. You can listen to the game live at 7pm on 94 WIP.


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