Unlike the NBA's elite squads, such as Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and Miami, the teams that are mired in mediocrity - which could just as easily qualify for seeds six through eight in the playoffs as they could land in the lottery - usually have a stretch or two in the season that defines their fate.

If they exceed expectations rather than come up short during that stretch, they significantly enhance their chances of becoming a playoff team as opposed to entering the draft lottery.

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Last season for the 76ers, the moment came at the start of the season, when they returned from a West Coast trip with a 3-2 record, won seven consecutive home games, and got out of the gate 18-7 after a 95-90 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 6.

This enabled the Sixers to survive an 11-20 freefall that spanned two months. Had they not started strong, they probably would have dropped into the lottery and not experienced the postseason that unquestionably benefited Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, and Thaddeus Young.

For this year's Sixers, the moment when intestinal fortitude meets its stiffest test is here. If you haven't seen the Sixers play at the Wells Fargo Center yet, your last chance to catch them there before the calendar page turns to 2013 is Friday against Lou Williams and the Hawks.

Beginning with back-to-back games this week at Dallas and Houston, 11 of the Sixers' next 13 games are on the road. That's not a good situation when your best player, Holiday, has missed the last two games with a gimpy foot and you are on your longest losing streak of the season after being pulverized by the Los Angeles Lakers.

Until their schedule begins to normalize in January, the Sixers will play four sets of back-to-back road games, the last of which will be against the Thunder and the Spurs.

However, according to coach Doug Collins, it is not the challenges ahead on the road that worry him. Collins is more concerned that the Sixers - last year one of the best teams in the league at defending the three-point shot - are not close to being as good as they were at the defensive end last season, particularly along the perimeter, where Andre Iguodala used to patrol.

This is readily underscored by the way teams are making threes against the Sixers. On Sunday, the Lakers knocked down a floor-record 10 in the first half on the way to 14 for the game. In 66 games last season, the Sixers, who have just five players back from that squad, allowed 10 made threes just five times. This team has allowed that to happen six times through 24 games.

"I'm not concerned about the road, because I don't think we play any differently, home or road," Collins said. "We're 4-5 on the road, and we've lost seven games at home. I'm not concerned about us playing on the road. I'm concerned about us playing the kind of basketball we have to play for us to win."

While Collins didn't call the Sixers soft, small forward Evan Turner said that they must become tougher than they have been. Collins has said that this is a different team from last season, something that until Sunday you didn't hear coming from the players.

"Last year, we had a different type of team," Turner said. "We weren't as good offensively, but we were grimier and grittier, you know. We need to get nastier - that's our identity. We sometimes shy away from doing the gritty things. We have to change that. Hopefully, we can go out and do that on the road. That can be a good place for a team to come together."

For the Sixers, that sentiment may prove to be a romanticized aspect of the NBA, because the reality is that the road can expose all of your warts, and the Sixers have a few. That aversion to getting to the line last season? It's back. In their last two games, the Sixers have attempted a total of 27 free throws. Meanwhile, the Pacers and the Lakers have made 51 trips.

The schedule gets friendlier in January, but by then the Sixers could be longing for the days when they were a .500 ball club.

"We know what's in front of us," Turner said. "Every team goes down this road. We knew it was coming. Now we just have to deal with it."

Contact John N. Mitchell at jmitchell@philly.com, or follow on Twitter @JmitchInquirer.