Sixers feature new dimension

FRANK ZICARELLI, TORONTO SUN

, Last Updated: 7:33 AM ET

A Brand new era begins this evening in the city of brotherly love, an unveiling of a much-needed presence in the low post, a past all-star bent on regaining his status among basketball's elite.

As much as Raptors fans have been pining for the regular season and how Jermaine O'Neal meshes with Chris Bosh in Toronto's new-look frontcourt, tonight's tip is more about Elton Brand returning to the Eastern Conference.

From a basketball perspective, the rivalry between Philly and Toronto was forged when Allen Iverson and Vince Carter exchanged 50-point playoff games in a seven-game series that wasn't decided until the final shot.

The direction and fortunes of each franchise since that monumental matchup in the spring of 2001 have taken different twists and turns with neither club reaching such giddy levels.

Both teams enter tonight with the expected optimism having each addressed an obvious need.

In the pecking order that is the Atlantic Division, the reigning NBA champion Boston Celtics are the consensus pick, leaving the Raps and Sixers to jockey for second fiddle.

Barring injuries or a complete implosion, the Sixers and Raptors are playoff-bound, the only question being how deep can either team advance in the post-season?

Last season, the Raptors earned the sixth seed only to be ousted in five games by the Orlando Magic. Toronto's inability to defend the post and perimeter was exposed.

Philly recovered from an 18-30 start to gain the seventh seed and a meeting with the playoff-tested Detroit Pistons.

After leading 2-1, the Sixers lost three in a row, unable to adjust to a half-court game and incapable of making shots.

By slowing the energetic Sixers down, the Pistons held Philly to an average of 80.1 points, 40% shooting from the field and an anemic 27% from beyond the three-point arc.

Brand gives Philly a legitimate low-post presence, who will demand double teams. The two-time all-star is among the best offensive rebounders in the NBA.

While the Sixers want to run and have enough young horses to impose a frenetic pace, they now have an anchor in the paint when they do set up in the half court.

Both Brand and O'Neal fill needs, but what separates the Sixers from the Raptors is depth.

Philly has more versatile pieces and is equipped for both short-term and long-term success.

The Raptors, essentially, have a window of about two years.

As currently constituted, Philly's roster is more flexible when compared to Toronto's "streamlined'' approach.

When one analyzes each team, the Sixers are better and have a better shot of going deeper into the post-season.

The Bosh/O'Neal tandem has the potential to be among the most daunting in the NBA.

Brand's offensive skill-set should blend in with Samuel Dalembert's defence. Combined, the Brand/Dalembert combo will haul down plenty of rebounds.

The Sixers are quicker, more athletic and by extension more explosive than the Raptors, who remain vulnerable off the dribble.

The one area of concern in Philly is shooting. The Sixers were dead last in the NBA last season, making 31.7% of their three-point heaves.

The team brought in free-agent swingman Kareem Rush, who didn't exactly light it up in the pre-season, making only 31% of his attempts.

Each will say otherwise, but neither club is good enough to win the division, let alone the conference.

But as they meet tonight, the Sixers are the better team.

Philly has youth and experience, both in its starting rotation and on the bench.

The Raptors have three solid pieces in Bosh, O'Neal and Jose Calderon and then question marks. The bench is thin and too inconsistent.

Tonight is one night of an 82-game schedule, but it looms nonetheless as an important meeting between two teams that made the two most impactful off-season moves in the NBA.

"This team is really set to win,'' Brand said, a sentiment O'Neal has expressed about his new team.


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