Big things were predicted for the Sixers this season, but All-Star center Andrew Bynum still hasn't suited up. And with that has come a 17-25 record, placing them 10 games behind the Knicks in the Atlantic Division standings.
Instead, Philadelphia has been riding the coattails of point guard Jrue Holiday, who is a first-time All-Star. He's averaging 19 points, 9 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. He's the biggest concern for the Knicks, and that defensive assignment will likely go to Raymond Felton, who will make his return -- and start -- after recovering from a broken right pinky.
Here are three things to watch for Saturday night in Philadelphia, tipoff at 7 p.m.:
1. Felton's impact. Can he get that deep-drive penetration to boost the Knicks' ball movement? Can he pick up the pace to help the team jump out to a strong first quarter? Can he re-establish a connection with Tyson Chandler in the pick-and-roll, and find the center for easy lobs? Will he benefit off that play as well, and get back to nailing jumpers and 3-pointers off screens like he was doing earlier in the season?
While it's only Felton's first game back, with him running the team, the offensive flow the Knicks once had should eventually resume -- which should enable other players to get more open looks. Felton's presence will also allow some of his teammates -- notably Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony -- to take on fewer minutes and responsibilities. It's only January, so it's very important to reduce their workloads at this point.
2. The Knicks' new starting lineup. Mike Woodson is wisely going with Felton, Kidd, Iman Shumpert, Anthony and Chandler at the jump on Saturday. Woodson needs to finally stick with something, after constantly switching players in and out of the lineup. Having those first five in there is the way to go.
Felton and Kidd together in the backcourt was a big reason why the Knicks' ball rotation was so good to start the season. While Felton initiates the offense well, Kidd is a great extra-pass facilitator and heads-up playmaker. He's also the team's second-best 3-point shooter after Steve Novak. Then with Shumpert, you have your best perimeter defender on the floor to start the game. And, of course, Melo is Melo, and Chandler is the team's defensive anchor.
3. Defensively, it's all about perimeter rotations. The Sixers are one of the best passing and most efficient teams in the NBA. Their 1.72 assist-to-turnover ratio is third-best, right behind the Knicks. Holiday fuels them, as well as starting small forward Evan Turner (4.5 assists per game). In their past five games, they're averaging 27.6 assists per game.
Holiday's isolations really set the halfcourt tempo for the Sixers. He's seventh-best in the league in isolation points per play (0.964), and his ability to get in the lane jump-starts their ball movement, and that's when their 3-point shooting can be a problem for opponents (an 11th-best 35.9 percent).
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