The 76ers know the real tests are coming.
They've won five of their last 10 games, but one of those wins came against an Atlanta Hawks squad that rested three starters. The other four victories were against opponents that had a combined winning percentage of .328 heading into Thursday's games.
The Sixers (18-54) have made dramatic improvements since opening the season with 17 consecutive losses. But the coming games against the Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers will be a true barometer of how far they've come.
The Clippers (47-25), who have won five straight and come to the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night, might be the Sixers' easier matchup. On Sunday, they'll face a Cavaliers squad (47-26) that has won 10 of its last 12 games.
"We actually are going to taste playoff basketball," said Sixers guard Jason Richardson. "The Clippers are still battling for [playoff] position. I'm sure this is a must-win [game] for them."
Meanwhile, the Cavs are revving things up in preparation for the playoffs. So Richardson doesn't expect them to rest their star players.
"They are still playing for something," he said. "Cleveland is still trying to get Kevin Love the ball, and Kyrie [Irving] and LeBron [James] are playing great. They still want to win games."
On Wednesday, the Sixers showed they are becoming a tough out for non-playoff teams. They snapped their 16-game road losing streak with a 99-85 victory over the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.
Noel had 14 points and four blocked shots to go with game highs of 15 rebounds and four steals. This was his rookie-class-leading 15th double-double of the season.
Robert Covington made 6 of 11 three-pointers en route to a game-high 25 points. Isaiah Canaan, the backup point guard, added 15 points. Rookie power forward Jerami Grant had a game-high five blocked shots in his second career start. Luc Mbah a Moute, the normal starter, missed the game with a sore left shoulder.
"Regardless if we make the playoffs or not, we still have that chip on our shoulders to play as hard as we can," Noel said.