Upcoming Stretch Presents Big Test for New-Look Sixers

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

Everything has been going great in the three games since James Harden made his debut for the Philadelphia 76ers. The team is 3-0, recording double-digit wins first over the Minnesota Timberwolves and then consecutively against the New York Knicks.

Harden is gelling well with the rest of his new teammates. Joel Embiid is continuing to play at an MVP level, Harden is filling up the stat sheet and Tyrese Maxey is adapting incredibly well to playing alongside Harden.

However, things will get much tougher over the next four games, which present the Sixers with a golden opportunity to cement themselves as contenders in the Eastern Conference. They are currently 38-23 and in second place in the Eastern Conference, just 2.5 games behind the first-place Miami Heat, who are 42-22 entering Friday.

The Sixers open up this difficult four-game stretch with a home-road back-to-back beginning with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are 36-26 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, on Friday before then traveling down to Miami to face the first-place Heat on Saturday. Having a back-to-back where the team has to travel to Miami will be brutal, and it is not the first time this scheduling quirk has happened to the Sixers this season. They beat the Boston Celtics 111-99 on Jan. 14 and then followed it up with a gutsy performance down in Miami the next day, beating the Heat 109-98.

A win once again in Miami would help the Sixers tremendously in terms of their attempt to get the top seed in the conference. The two teams will play each other one more time, on March 21 in Philadelphia.

After that back-to-back, the team faces the Chicago Bulls on Monday night. The Bulls are neck and neck with the Sixers, both are currently 2.5 games behind the Heat. The Sixers have control over the season series with Chicago, winning all three games thus far.

The Sixers then take on the Brooklyn Nets, who just received Kevin Durant back from injury. This matchup has loads of intrigue coming in considering Kyrie Irving should be available (the game is in Philadelphia) and Durant just returned to the court. However, Ben Simmons will not be stepping on the court in Philadelphia on March 10. Nets general manager Sean Marks on Thursday said "there's no real timetable" for Simmons' return to the court.

This upcoming stretch will present the biggest test yet for the Sixers since they added Harden to the roster. Will their newly found "big three" continue to light the league on fire? The "big three" of Embiid, Harden and Maxey has averaged 84.7 points per game in their three games together. The Cavs and Heat are two of the best defenses in the league. The Cavs allow the fewest points per game in the league, giving up 103.0 per game. The Heat, with their vaunted zone defense, are fifth in the league, allowing 105.0 points per game. It will be a true test for this Sixers offense to see how well they do against a pair of the top defenses in the NBA, especially on a back-to-back.

Will the Sixers be able to take advantage of this opportunity to try to separate from the pack in the Eastern Conference? Only time will tell.

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