Despite skid, 76ers eye a strong second half

Posted: February 27, 2012

Even though the 76ers lost five consecutive games heading into the all-star break, they still have a firm grip on the Atlantic Division as the second half of the season begins.

Winning the division is important because it guarantees home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The three Eastern Conference division winners automatically get one of the top four seeds, with the team with the best non-division winning record earning one of those spots. The four teams are seeded according to record.

So while conference record is important, so is the division record and despite the recent improvement made by the New York Knicks and the veteran presence in Boston, the Sixers (20-14) remain clearly in command. With 32 games left in the second half, they lead the Knicks (17-18) by 31/2 games and the Celtics (15-17) by 4.

"I think your primary goal every year is to win your division first, because it gives you home-court advantage in the first round," Sixers president Rod Thorn said.

Despite losing forward Elton Brand (injured thumb) for the last two games and center Spencer Hawes (strained Achilles tendon) for 19 of the last 21 games, the Sixers have built a solid cushion in the division. But there is incentive for the Knicks and Celtics to make a run. That's because nobody wants to be seeded seventh or eighth because that would mean a likely first-round matchup with either Miami or Chicago.

The Sixers found out last season how difficult that scenario is, by losing to Miami in five games during the first round.

So winning the division would virtually assure no first-round meeting with either Chicago or Miami.

Before the Jeremy Lin phenomenon, there was a question as to whether the Knicks would make the playoffs. Actually, the Knicks and Celtics still have plenty of work to do not only to make up ground on the Sixers, but just to secure playoff berths.

The Knicks would currently be the seventh seed and the Celtics No. 8. Cleveland, the current No. 9 seed is only two games behind the Knicks.

Yet with Lin's emergence, the signing of sniper J.R. Smith, point guard Baron Davis' return to the health, all of a sudden the Knicks have something they were clearly lacking - depth.

"Before we weren't very deep and now we're very deep," Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We can put guys there who can start on a lot of teams."

That said, D'Antoni understands that the early hole the Knicks dug themselves into could be a little too deep.

"Philadelphia is still the best team in our division and we're trying to catch them," D'Antoni said. "I think it's definitely possible."

But . . .

"We are more concerned about making the playoffs and being healthy and playing well at that time," he said.

If one team can handle being a low seed it's Boston. True, the Celtics are an aging group but they are considered dangerous in any series, especially since there won't be back-to-back contests and teams generally get more rest between games, especially in the early rounds.

"Boston for years has always been the crème de la crème from the division but they are sputtering now," said Nets coach Avery Johnson, whose team could be an Atlantic Division spoiler and already owns wins over the Sixers and Knicks. "They are a team you probably should be concerned about during playoff time because they know how to play."

Like the Sixers, Boston entered the all-star break with five consecutive losses.

What's interesting is that the Sixers haven't met the Celtics yet.

In fact of the Sixers final 32 games, three will be against the Celtics and two more against the Knicks. Of the other 27 games, 14 are against teams with current winning records and 13 are against teams with losing records. (During a two-week span in April, the Sixers play the 10-25 Nets three times.)

Of course no matter who the Sixers play, if they don't get the offense on track, then it's possible that the Knicks or Celtics, could make a run.

Yet it's clear that despite their recent slump, this is the Sixers division title to lose.

Hawes examined. The 76ers said that Hawes was examined by Richard Ferkel of the Southern California Orthopedic Institute over the all-star break, and the doctor recommended that Hawes no longer wear a protective boot. He also said that Hawes should not play in a game for at least two more weeks.

Contact staff writer Marc Narducci at, 856-779-3225 or @sjnard on Twitter.


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