By Spike Eskin
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Sixers (21-14) got their offense back on track last night in Detroit, scoring 97 points. Their defense was as stingy as ever, forcing the Pistons into 31% shooting from the field, the lowest percentage of a Sixers opponent all season. Tonight’s test will definitely be a more difficult one than Detroit presented.
The Oklahoma City Thunder (27-7) come into tonight’s game tied for the best record in the NBA, having won five straight, and the odds-on favorite to reach the Finals from the Western Conference. They’re led by reigning MVP Kevin Durant, who has been even better this year than his 2011 MVP campaign. He’s scoring as he always has, at almost 28 points per game, but also rebounding better than ever, with more than 8 per game, and averaging a career high in assists as well. Durant won the NBA All-Star Game MVP on Sunday, scoring 36 points and playing 37 minutes.
The schedule doesn’t seem to be bothering Durant, who told NBA TV that he likes the compressed schedule. He joked that part of the reason enjoys it is because it means fewer practices with head coach Scott Brooks. The Thunder are one of just three teams this season to win three games in three nights.
The winning has quieted talk that Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook aren’t a good match. Westbrook is more of a scoring point guard than a distributor, scoring at a higher rate and shooting at a higher percentage than ever, but averaging fewer assists than at any point in his career.
Against the Pistons, the Sixers looked like a team who really needed the rest of the All-Star break. They had an energy and a spring in their step that seemed to be missing in the games prior to the break. A good sign was seeing that energy from Elton Brand, who even though scored just 10 points and grabbed three rebounds, looked fresh. Brand got the start after missing the two games prior to the break with a sprained thumb. The man who spells Brand at the power forward spot, Thaddeus Young, looked great as well. Young played one of his best games of the season, with 20 points and eight rebounds, and was a team high +23.
The Thunder are the NBA’s second most efficient offensive team, but they’ll have their work cut out for them tonight with the Sixers. The Sixers, even with their recent struggles, have kept their defensive intensity up. They’re ranked first in the league in defensive efficiency, and are allowing the fewest points in the NBA as well.
The Sixers have won with defense in every this season. In the Sixers 21 wins, they’ve given up more than 90 points just once (a 101-93 win in New Orleans). The Thunder have been kept under 90 points just three times this year, and have won two of those games.
Something to watch for tonight will be how often the Sixers can get shots in the paint and to the free-throw line. They haven’t gotten to the line frequently this season, and Tuesday night against the Pistons was no different, as they shot only nine free throws. Getting shots at the rim will be as difficult as ever tonight, as the Sixers face the Thunder’s Serge Ibaka, who is leading the league in blocked shots (3.2 BPG).
In their meeting at the Wells Fargo Center last year, the Sixers played the Thunder well, but fell in overtime after Kevin Durant hit a three point shot with 6.9 seconds left in regulation to tie the game.
It’s another opportunity for the Sixers to defeat a team above .500. They’re 0-7 against .500 teams since February 6th. They’re 15-1 against teams with 14 or fewer wins, and 6-13 against teams with 15 or more this season.
Listen to KYW’s Matt Leon’s interview with Sixers play by play man Marc Zumoff:
The are tickets available for tonight’s game, and can be purchased at sixers.com. The game can be heard live at 7pm on 94WIP.