Now This is Fun: Three-Game Sixer "Test" Stretch Begins Against Nuggets

Now This is Fun: Three-Game Sixer "Test" Stretch Begins Against Nuggets

You'll all be happy to know that the Sixers remain on top of ESPN hoop guru John Hollinger's Power Rankings
for a second week this week, which is at least two more than we
would've expected from the Liberty Ballers going into '11-'12. But
looking amidst the many stats that Holly uses to calculate said
rankings, there's that one number that continues to make them stick out
from all the other top ten teams: .372, their "Strength of Schedule"
number that averages the record of the opponents the team has played.
For contrast, no other team in the top ten has an SOS lower than .460,
and the Heat (currently ranked at #2) are way up at .506.

All of this is to say that basically, the Sixers' opponents this season
have been creampuffs. Their "signature win" was against a banged-up
Pacers team at home, and the other three best teams they've played—the
Blazers, Jazz and Knicks—were all losses. (Close losses on the road, but
Ls just the same). Many, especially those incredulous at the Sixers' #1
ranking on ESPN (and even Marc Stein has 'em #3 now), say the Sixers
can't be counted among the East elite until they get some big Ws, even
if their chances at such big Ws have been few and far between in their
first 13 games.

Well, all that changes in the next three games. The Sixers play three
legitimate, proven teams now, with a chance to either show the league
that this team means business, or to demonstrate that we're still not
ready for prime time just yet. It starts tonight with a home game
against the 9-5 Nuggets, continues on Friday with a visit from the 10-4
Hawks, and concludes Saturday against the 9-4 Heat in Miami. Going 1-2
in this stretch would be borderline-acceptable, going 2-1 would be a
triumph, going 3-0 would be a downright statement. Going 0-3 would be
very, very tough to swallow.

Unfortunately, as will be the case for much of this strenuous,
strike-shortened season, the Sixers enter this pivotal stretch of the
season a little bit banged up. Coach Collins had even the boys doing
yoga to get their bodies right yesterday, but Spencer Hawes is still
gimpy with a sore back, and Evan Turner (who missed the Sixers' win over
the Bucks on MLK Day) is questionable with a thigh contusion. With
depth the Sixers' primary calling card, it's fairly crucial that these
guys be willing and able to play over the next three games—though at
least with the Sixers, unlike with some other teams, the loss of any one
guy isn't going to be exactly crippling.

As with the Bucks win, pivotal to success against the Nuggets will be
winning the point-guard battle. Jrue Holiday had his best game of the
season on Monday, with 24 points (on 11-17 FG), five dimes and five
steals, while helping keep Bucks PG Brandon Jennings to 7 points on 3-11
shooting. He'll need to perform similarly against Ty Lawson, the
lightning-quick point who the Sixers passed up to draft The Damaja,
currently in the midst of a near-All-Star season with the Nugs,
averaging 16 and 7 with nearly 50% shooting and a PER over 20.

7:00 tip from the WFC. "I'm down to win all of 'em—all the home games,
away games," Jrue boldly proclaimed after the Sixers' latest win. "We
could go undefeated from here on out. I'm cool with that.” Us too,
natch, though we might hit a hitch or two in that gameplan over the next
four days. If not, then we'll really have earned that #1 spot after all.

Best of NBA: Dwyane Wade hits dagger 3-pointer in Bulls debut

Best of NBA: Dwyane Wade hits dagger 3-pointer in Bulls debut

CHICAGO -- Dwyane Wade scored 22 points in a triumphant Chicago debut, Jimmy Butler had 24 and the Bulls won their season opener, beating the Boston Celtics 105-99 on Thursday night.

Wade nailed a 3 from the corner in the final minute to make it a five-point game. Taj Gibson added 18 points and 10 rebounds, and the new-look Bulls got off to a winning start after missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008.

Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 25 points. Avery Bradley had 16, and Jae Crowder 14 points, but the Celtics came up short after opening with a win over Brooklyn the previous night.

The Bulls remade their roster in the offseason, jettisoning one hometown superstar and welcoming another when they traded Derrick Rose to New York and signed Wade to a two-year deal worth about $47 million in a move that stunned Miami.

The three-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star is off to a good start with the Bulls after 13 seasons with the Heat.

Wade hit 4 of 6 3-pointers in this game after making just seven all of last season (see full recap).

New-look Hawks roll past Wizards
ATLANTA -- Dwight Howard dominated the boards in his Atlanta debut, Paul Millsap scored 28 points and Tim Hardaway Jr. ignited the new-look Hawks to a 114-99 victory over the Washington Wizards in their season opener Thursday night.

Howard grabbed 19 rebounds to go along with 11 points, just what the Hawks expected from their new center, and it certainly wasn't unusual for three-time All-Star Millsap to lead the way in scoring.

But Hardaway's performance was totally unexpected given the way he struggled in his first season with the Hawks, when he was largely confined to the bench and even forced to spend time in the D-League.

He scored 21 points, matching his high in an Atlanta uniform, and broke open a close game with back-to-back 3-pointers in the fourth. The Hawks, who led only 81-80 heading to the final period, outscored the Wizards 33-19 over the final 12 minutes (see full recap).

Best of NHL: Canadiens rally past Lightning for 6th straight win

Best of NHL: Canadiens rally past Lightning for 6th straight win

MONTREAL -- Max Pacioretty scored the tiebreaking goal in Montreal's three-goal third period as the Canadiens beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-1 Thursday night for their sixth straight win.

Alex Galchenyuk and Torrey Mitchell also scored to help Montreal improve to 7-0-1. Carey Price made 29 saves to win for the fourth time in four starts this season.

Alex Killorn scored the lone goal for the Lightning, who lost against an Eastern-Conference opponent for the first time this season. Ben Bishop stopped 23 shots.

With the scored tied 1-1, Pacioretty got the go-ahead goal at 10:23 by beating Bishop glove-side. Blown coverage by the Lightning left the Canadiens' captain all alone on the edge of the face-off circle, and Bishop couldn't see the shot with Andrew Shaw posted firmly in front of goal.

Montreal remains the only NHL team still undefeated in regulation (see full recap).

Crosby's late goal gives Penguins win over Islanders
PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby scored the tiebreaking goal late in the third period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to a 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Thursday night.

Patric Hornqvist, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel also scored -- each getting his third of the season -- to help the Penguins win for the third time in four games and improve to 5-0-1 at home.

Crosby, playing for the second straight game after missing the first six with a concussion, scored with 2:25 left as he caught a pass from Scott Wilson at the top of the crease and quickly turned to his forehand to put the puck behind Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak.

Kessel added a power-play goal to cap the scoring 32 seconds later.

Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 35 shots while starting for the eighth straight game.

Travis Hamonic and Shane Prince scored for the Islanders, and Halak finished with 31 saves (see full recap).

Streaking Red Wings win marathon shootout vs. Blues
ST. LOUIS -- Henrik Zetterberg scored in the eighth round of a shootout to give the Detroit Red Wings a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night.

Zetterberg's goal gave the Red Wings a six-game winning streak.

In the shootout, St. Louis' first shooter, Alexander Steen, scored but then Vladimir Tarasenko, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Perron, Nail Yakupoc, Robby Fabbri, Patrick Burgland and Dmitrjij Jaskin all came up short.

Gustav Nyquist scored on Detroit's second attempt but Frans Nielsen, Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheehan and Darren Helm all missed.

St. Louis had the better chances in overtime. Center Jaden Schwartz missed a wide-open net early in the extra session. Jori Lehtera was stopped on a breakaway midway through the period by Detroit goalie Petr Mrazek (see full recap).