WITH THE WIN over the New Jersey Nets on Monday, the 76ers answered their biggest question of late: They will be participating in the playoffs.
It was their third win in a row, all on the road, and they appear to be playing closer to the type of solid basketball they did in the beginning of the season, as opposed to the not-so-good lately.
The playoffs will begin this weekend. The Sixers will face the Chicago Bulls or the Miami Heat. Currently, the Sixers are tied with New York for the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, but the Knicks own the tiebreaker, as they beat the Sixers twice this season in their three meetings.
So as the playoffs approach, positives and negatives still litter the Sixers' landscape. First, let's take a look at the positives:
1. Andre Iguodala is playing his best basketball in quite some time. He is attacking at the offensive end more than he's done all season, maybe more than in the past two seasons. Coach Doug Collins has told his forward he needs him to get off to good starts, and Iguodala has done just that lately. In the past five games, he has shot 52.3 percent (33-for-63), including 14-for-30 from three-point range, and has averaged 17.4 points.
2. The offense has really come alive of late, as the team has been moving the ball better on the perimeter and cutting better to the basket, which has led to higher-percentage shots. Over the past eight games, the Sixers have scored more than 100 five times and are averaging 100.4 points a game.
3. Elton Brand has found his midrange jumper again and has become lethal from 10 to 15 feet. He also has shown much more spring and feistiness over the past few games, bringing a physical element to the inside game this team sorely lacks.
4. One of the constants throughout the season has been the play of the Sixers bench, and that hasn't changed much. Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams and Evan Turner have played very well lately. Collins also has been bringing Spencer Hawes off the bench, because he likes how the center plays with Young. Whether he decides to keep Hawes as a bench player for the playoffs remains to be seen.
5. By clinching the playoff spot Monday, Collins can rest some of his players. He said after the Nets win that Iguodala, Brand and Williams might be shut down for the team's final two games - Wednesday in Milwaukee and Thursday in Detroit. That will be very beneficial. For this team, winning comes with maximum effort each night. Rest certainly will be welcomed.
With the good also comes the bad, and here are some concerns right now:
1. Nikola Vucevic has been the starting center since Collins decided to have Hawes come off the bench. But Vucevic's play of late has been spotty at best and Collins can't afford to leave him on the court when he isn't rebounding or playing aggressively. Collins took him out a little more than 2 minutes into the game in New Jersey, and didn't put him back in for the rest of the night. Does Collins stick with him, start fellow rookie Lavoy Allen, or go back to Hawes?
2. While Collins continues to endorse the play of starting shooting guard Jodie Meeks, how long can he afford to play him in a do-or-die playoff series? If Meeks isn't hitting shots, then he really can't be on the floor as much as he has been.
3. The defense hasn't exactly been stellar lately, but has done enough to win. They Sixers have given up an average of 98.3 the past six games.
4. The opponent, whether it's the Bulls or the Heat, certainly won't be an ideal one, especially when you consider the Sixers led the Atlantic Division for most of the season. Winning the division could have brought a home first-round playoff series and perhaps advancement to the second round. A second-round appearance seems very much a longshot now.
5. When the Sixers play their first home playoff game, it probably will be toward the end of next week. After two postseason games on the road, that will mean they had played 11 of their previous 13 games on the road. Although Collins thinks getting away from home was good for this team at this time of the year, that is a very tough schedule.
So, two meaningless games remain, and then the fun part of the season begins, with many questions still in the air concerning the Sixers.