IT'S THE MIDDLE of "Death Row" week, as 76ers coach Doug Collins has dubbed the four games this week.
The Sixers have played and beaten two tough teams, Orlando and Chicago, and now host the Miami Heat tonight before going to Atlanta tomorrow.
While it might be easy to gloat over the two triumphs, the coach and his players won't do it. Splitting the next two games certainly would be acceptable, but no one will talk of that, either.
Though the teams they are in the midst of facing are among the upper echelon in the league (not to mention visits by the Lakers, Spurs and Clippers next week), Collins, his staff and players are marching through this stretch the way they have the whole season. They are looking solely at the opponent they are facing next, not looking back or forward.
And right now, it's the Heat, the team that bounced the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs last season in five games.
The Heat comes to the Wells Fargo Center having won five of its last six and eight of 10, with both losses coming against Milwaukee. Miami lost to the Bucks, 105-97, on Wednesday, despite leading by as many as 18 points in the second quarter. LeBron James posted his first 40-point game of the season.
"People talk about what's ahead of you. We're just going to focus in now on the Miami Heat," Collins said yesterday after the team's practice at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "Let's see how we do and then move on to the next game. I think our guys have done a great job of that."
That's translated to 16 wins in 22 games, including 11 of 13 at home.
"Our defense has been really, really good. Really, really good," said Collins, whose team allows a league-low 85.9 points per game.
Collins was pleased that the Sixers were able to keep Bulls guard Derrick Rose in check, especially considering that point guards Andre Miller (Denver) and Deron Williams (New Jersey) were largely responsible for the two home losses.
"I think we were really committed to trying to keep Derrick Rose from throwing up one of those big nights,'' Collins said. "Our guys did a really good job at that. When you look at the numbers, we won everything that we wanted to win. The only difference was that we were minus- nine at the three-point line, but a lot of those came late. But every other statistic - points off turnovers, points in the paint, second-chance, fastbreak, shooting, all that - we won those battles. [We had] 26 assists and only 10 turnovers. I mean, we played a great game and it was so nice because our crowd was great from start to finish."
The crowd and atmosphere should only be bigger and more intense tonight as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh invade Philly for the first time this season. A limited number of tickets remained available as of yesterday.
The Heat just might be a little bit ornery after a second loss to the Bucks. But the team's mood probably won't be much different than it was last year in the playoffs, a series that was much closer than the 4-1 outcome showed. A win against the Heat probably would be more special to the fans because of who it's against - Miami has won the last eight regular-season meetings between the teams.
"I think we're respected throughout the league by teams that have played us," Collins said. "I don't think on paper that we're going to overwhelm anybody and because of that it's a fun team, it's a nice team [in opponents' eyes].
"But we do the things necessary in this league to win. First of all, we defend, rebounding differential is basically even and we've become one of the best teams in the league at not fouling. We're No. 1 in fewest turnovers, we share the ball, we have nine guys that we count on to share in the scoring. All those things lead to some success, and I feel good about that.''
The Heat practiced yesterday afternoon at PCOM . . . The Sixers will have their shootaround at PCOM this morning, the Heat at another location, as the Wells Fargo Center will be hostng the Wing Bowl . . . The Sixers lead the league in point differential (plus-11.6 per game) . . . The Sixers, Chicago and Indiana are the only teams not to lose consecutive games this season.