Good news for the 76ers: Tonight's game is against a Portland Trail Blazers team that played last night, lending hope that they might catch them fatigued on a back-to-back. Unfortunately, just about everything else about this match-up spells disaster.
Riding into town on a seven-game win streak, the Blazers have been firing on all cylinders of late, picking up wins against the likes of Chicago and New Orleans and discarding the rest of the fodder on the schedule. One win in particular, a 130-113 beatdown of the Nuggets, is the type of contest that particularly worries me entering tonight's contest.
The Blazers poured in 84 points against Denver in the first half of that game, coasting the rest of the way to a comfortable win. Three-point shooting was the impetus for the shellacking and is typically the driving force behind Portland's offense. They're the second best team by percentage in the league, clocking in at a smidgen under 40 percent from deep on a fifth best 25.5 attempts.
That looks like disaster for a Sixers team that struggles to defend the three-point line. A dicey combination of pack-the-paint strategy and unaware defenders turns stretches of contests into shooting galleries, and the Blazers have the right personnel to take advantage. I don't imagine it will happen tonight, but I'd like to see Brett Brown experiment with some different looks as the season wears on, staying home more on shooters and putting more responsibility on Nerlens Noel to turn away traffic at the rim. Now is the time for a young coach to see what works free of consequence.
Speaking of Mr. Noel, the Sixers forward/center is coming off his best game to date and is tasked with a tough match-up to follow. LaMarcus Aldridge was already a difficult cover as a stretch big, but he's begun to expand his range even further into three-point territory. He's only clocked 14 attempts so far this season, but that's just one less than all of last year, and he's knocking them down at a 50 percent clip. Assuming that Noel will be guarding him, the Sixers will have to compensate for their rim protector being dragged out to the perimeter.
Henry Sims will have a part to play in paint defense, but a better showing from Michael Carter-Williams would go a long way. One of his big struggle points last season (and early this year) was fighting through screens, a liability that Portland will abuse through a variety of pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop opportunities. Damian Lillard is one of the NBA's more ready and willing shooters off the dribble, so the margin of error will be slim.
Those individual battles are what make games worth watching. There's a distinct possibility that Portland will dispose of the Sixers quite easily given their natural match-up advantages, but the Blazers pivotal pieces are at the positions of the Sixers best players. Even if you buy into the "discouraged by losing" trope wholesale, outings with players among the best at your position will always get the juices flowing. Brown should get the best out of MCW and Nerlens tonight, and we'll see how far away they are from one of the league's most fun 1-2 punches.