By Josh Liddick, Sports Talk Philly editor
Tip-off: 8:00 pm ❖ Location: Cleveland, OH ❖ TV: TNT ❖ Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic
The Philadelphia 76ers (32-27) enter Thursday night on a two-game losing streak, after entering the NBA All-Star Break on a hot streak. The Sixers had won seven straight games heading into Washington on Sunday night, but fell to the Wizards and then to the Miami Heat in dramatic fashion on Tuesday.
Thursday's matchup hands the Sixers quite a challenge, as they'll have to figure out a way to upset LeBron James and the Cavaliers (36-24) in Cleveland.
The first two games were closely contested between the two teams, with the Cavs finding a way to pull ahead late and steal both wins. But the Cavaliers of now are almost completely different than the Cavaliers of then.
Gone is Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and Derrick Rose. Enter in Rodney Hood, George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., and Jordan Clarkson.
Cleveland has gotten a lot younger from the last time they met the Sixers, and in a lot of cases, LeBron seems a lot happier with the team he has. The Cavs are 5-2 since they traded away almost half of their team on February 8.
The Sixers also look a little different than the last time they saw the Cavs. Though not nearly as drastic, the Sixers have since brought in Marco Belinelli and now Ersan Ilyasova to the team, replacing Trevor Booker who was waived.
First look at new bench
By now, we all realize that no matter which way we cut it or how the Sixers have been a lot better of a team than recent years, the bench still remains a problem.
There are areas where the Sixers' bench is better and more efficient than other. When the second team is out on the floor, they are a middle-of-the-pack assisting team and above average at grabbing offensive rebounds.
But scoring wise, the bench is one of the worst teams in the NBA. So bad in fact, that Bryan Colangelo rightfully made a move to sign Marco Belinelli to improve bench shooting, and also to sign Ersan Ilyasova, who will make his debut on Thursday.
While Trevor Booker provided defensive minutes that are valuable for a bench, his offensive stats were nothing to write home about. That's why Ilyasova provides more of an advantage shooting the ball than Booker, getting the bench to where it needs to be.
There are still super dark holes in the Sixers' bench that will need addressing once we get into the offseason, but adding Belinelli and Ilyasova gets the bench in a comfortable position from this moment moving forward.
It will be very intriguing to see how Ilyasova mixes in with the Sixers bench, considering he spent most of his 53 games with Philadelphia last season as a starter. The roles, obviously, have reversed now since Dario Saric has already proved that he's a lock as a starter on the Sixers for the future, but Ilyasova seems like he will be the perfect replacement for Saric when he needs to come off the floor, especially when he gets to pair up with Joel Embiid.
I was telling someone yesterday, I really admire Colangelo for pulling off something like this. Getting two viable bench options for cheap that will help this team on this playoff run is a lot more logical than trading for a Tyreke Evans-esque player and giving up more than you'd like to.
Colangelo standing pat at the deadline is commendable, and the bench got a lot better without even having to deal any assets away for it.
LeBron takes the floor against his "future" teammates
Yeah yeah, I get it. You aren't on board with this whole #LeBronToPhilly movement. Or maybe you are.
With whatever position you are with the Sixers potentially signing LeBron James in free agency, you have to admit that the storyline is pretty amusing.
I could literally write a novel on all the hints, rumors, and fake news that has been spread about King James coming to South Philly, but I'll spare you the details. For now. LeBron has already admitted how "flattered" he was when he saw the billboards in Cleveland, and how he denied taking tours of schools in Pennsylvania during the All-Star Break.
Honestly, just being able to get another look at LeBron getting to take on Ben Simmons one-on-one makes me giddy. The first two matchups were fun, but I almost think they weren't as serious as this one is going to be.
Ben Simmons was a fairly new face in the league the first two times he had the chance to take on LeBron. And there was a ton of media buzz surrounding the two players, especially with the LeBron/Simmons as a player comps.
Now that the hype has worn off a little bit, and Simmons is a little more seasoned as a player, I firmly believe we'll see one heck of a battle between these two players tonight.
It also adds a little bit of zest to think that these two guys could potentially be wearing the same uniform next season.
Earlier in the season, LeBron had some mentor-like words for Lonzo Ball when they played each other, expect the same confrontation at the end of this one between him and Simmons.
It's been a long time since the Sixers beat the Cavs
Over the last five years, the Sixers haven't had the greatest luck against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Part of the reason is LeBron James, most of the reason being a result of the Process.
But nonetheless, the Sixers enter Thursday night's showdown losing their last 11 games against Cleveland. The last win was back on November 8, 2013.
The Cavaliers have taken 14 of the last 15 matchups against Philadelphia. They all haven't been blowouts, in fact the Sixers could've had a chance to win at least four or five of the games against the LeBron-led, three-time defending East champions over the last two seasons.
It seems like a long shot that the win will come tonight at the Quicken Loans Arena, but never say never. The Sixers are hungry to prove to the world that they can beat any team, especially one as formidable as the Cavaliers.
If the Sixers beat the Cavs on Thursday, they would have beaten the Raptors, Celtics, and Cleveland at least one time this season, the three top dogs in the Eastern Conference.
Playoff positioning a key in game
The Sixers were in pretty decent shape prior to Sunday night's loss to the Wizards in terms with their positioning in the Eastern Conference standing. A win would have put them in the driver's seat for the fourth seed in the East, putting them right behind the Cavs in third, which would have made Thursday's game a little more entertaining with the added stipulation.
The Sixers are 3.5 games behind the Cavs for third in the East, but tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for the sixth seed. A game like this is important for the team, because with so little time left to make moves, getting a game up on a greater opponent would make the road to getting a better seed a lot easier.
A loss tonight could potentially drop the Sixers back down to the eighth seed in the conference, a position they surely wouldn't choose to be in at this point in the season.