Wednesday’s best NBA game has the first-place Philadelphia 76ers figuring out a way to defend Dwight Howard as they visit the Orlando Magic.
Howard seems due for a big game, having managed 11 points and 14 rebounds at Milwaukee on Saturday and 11 points and seven rebounds as he was limited by fouls vs. Minnesota on Monday.
Despite the drop in production from Howard, the Magic (18-11) won both games. His presence in the post allowed Orlando to make 27-of-67 3-pointers in those two contests.
And if you think 11 points and 14 boards is not a big game, consider that Howard had averaged 25.7 points and 16.0 rebounds in his previous four games. He has six 20-20 games this season, more than the rest of the league combined.
So it could be all hands on deck for the 76ers (20-9), who again will be without 7-footer Spencer Hawes, their starting center who has missed 14 of the last 16 games with a strained Achilles tendon.
No one considers Hawes an elite center, but he has become somewhat indispensable to the Sixers as a scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. Philadelphia is 12-2 when Hawes plays and just 8-7 when he sits.
In his absence, the Sixers have signed veteran Francisco Elson for bench depth while entrusting rookies Lavoy Allen and Nikola Vucevic, forward Elton Brand and center Tony Battie to man the middle.
Allen is a wide body and has shown flashes but has slumped lately, getting early hooks from coach Doug Collins. Vucevic has been more consistent, averaging 5.6 points and 5.0 rebounds, but is better suited to play power forward.
So is Brand, whose reduced role has him at a career-low 10.1 points with 6.9 rebounds. Battie can be crafty but is coming off an ankle injury and cannot be expected to play anything more than short stretches.
The Sixers almost certainly will have to double-team Howard, which will force their defense – ranked second in points allowed (86.8), third in opponents’ shooting (.417) and second in opponents’ 3-point shooting (.301) – to scramble and rotate to Orlando’s fleet of long-range shooters.
Philadelphia also likes to run, using its quickness and league-leading turnover margin of 3.9 to create open-floor opportunities. That will be difficult if the Sixers are taking the ball out of the basket to start their offense.
And the Magic are playing much better than when they visited the Sixers on Jan. 30 and still had not scored 50 points with less than four minutes to go in a 74-69 loss. Orlando was in the throes of a huge slump and has won six of eight since, losing only a pair of overtime games.