The 76ers are legit. But can they win big playoff games?

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The Philadelphia 76ers beat the Chicago Bulls Wednesday night. Yes, a Bulls team without Luol Deng or Richard Hamilton, but still the team with the best record in the east and the reigning MVP Derrick Rose.

As I said in the recaps, this was another clear sign that the Sixers are legit. They are a top three/four seed in the East, they are going to win a lot of games and be a tough team to beat come the playoffs. They are balanced, have fantastic ball movement and play great defense.

But in the playoffs, will Philly be able score at the end of close games without a superstar? Conventional wisdom is you need a star who can create his own shot late in tight games (like Dirk Nowitzki did for the Mavericks last year). Can the 76ers really be considered a contender without one?

In an interesting, wide-ranging interview with Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated, Sixers GM Rod Thorn says we are all going to find out about that together.

So Rod, can the Sixers win regularly in the payoffs, can they score enough late in the game without a superstar to give the ball and get out of the way?

That’s the $64,000 question: Can you do that night in and night out in close games? It’s an advantage to have someone who can get a good shot, or get fouled late in the ball game. Even the bad teams, if the games are close late, on the defensive end of the court, they get much harder and much better. And it’s harder to just run plays. Patterns you’ve run all night — it’s harder to do late. So ultra-talent certainly helps late. But with us and with Denver, you don’t know where it’s coming from.

If you’re playing the Lakers, you know what they’re going to do down the court every time late in the game.

So, are the Sixers contenders right now?

That’s a leap for us right now. We just made the playoffs as the seventh-place team. We’re definitely better this year when we have all of our pieces healthy. Spencer [Hawes] was an incredible plus for us in the first eight games. It put us on another level. We haven’t had him for a while. I think we can compete with anybody, but we have to prove we can play at that level, with those really, really elite teams.

I think the Sixers are good. Probably the third best team in the East, but the gap up to one and two is huge. Wednesday night was a good win for the 76ers, but it was an early season win with the Bulls missing some key pieces. I like Jrue Holiday, I love Lou Williams off the bench, I love how Spencer Hawes has stepped up. I still don’t think the Sixers can beat the Bulls or Heat over a seven game series.

But both the Sixers and Nuggets are good teams without a classic superstar this season, and come the playoffs they are going to be interesting to watch. Unless you are the Bulls, Heat and Thunder, in which case they are teams to avoid.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

AP Photo/Phil Long
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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.

Mavericks’ Salah Mejri dunks while getting shoved in the gut (video)

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The Mavericks built a 13-point lead over the Thunder with 3:30left thanks to plays like this Salah Mejri dunk on Nick Collison.

Unfortunately for Dallas, Russell Westbrook happened.

Willy Hernangomez dunks on Andre Drummond, Pistons’ playoff chances (video)

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Andre Drummond and the Pistons couldn’t slow down anything.

Not Willy Hernangomez. Not the Knicks. Not Detroit’s plummeting playoff hopes.

After a 109-95 loss to the Knicks last night, the Pistons — who’ve lost four straight and seven of eight — are 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position.

Terrence Ross 360 dunks his way back into Raptors fans’ hearts (video)

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In his first appearance in Toronto since the Raptors traded him to the Magic, Terrence Ross did what he has done best throughout his career: Delight Toronto fans with a dunk.

And of course the fans appreciated it, because their Raptors cruised to a 131-112 win.