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Sixers-Hornets preview: Can Joel Embiid, Sixers win three straight?

The Sixers are on the verge of their first three-game streak in years. Spencer Hawes stands in the way.

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off one of the most exciting Sixers wins in years, Joel Embiid and the gang are on the verge of the first three-game streak since the Michael Carter-Williams era. To get over the hump, they’ll have to navigate past a Charlotte Hornets team sputtering through the NBA’s winter doldrums.

Losers of five of their last six games, the Hornets’ recent record makes it look they’re in worse shape than they probably are. Houston, San Antonio, and Cleveland are all firmly better teams, and a one-point loss in Detroit last Thursday would have gone the other way if Marco Belinelli was able to get a buzzer-beating jumper off in time. Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum, who missed the last couple games with a hyper-extended knee, is also likely to return to the lineup, providing a boost for a rotation sorely in need of one.

Nonetheless, there’s no better time to catch the Hornets than now. Their defense, usually a calling card under head coach Steve Clifford, has fallen off a cliff during their recent cold streak. Charlotte has conceded almost 115 points per game over their last six games.

There’s a caveat there — most of the damage has been done by opposing guards and wings, and the Hornets continue to be one of the league’s stingiest teams protecting the paint. Given the rotation of big men — friend of the blog Spencer Hawes is still getting over 17 minutes per game — it’s hard to believe they’re able to maintain a top-six ranking for opponent points in the paint. Still, they tend to make life miserable for teams in the restricted area, and concede the least free throws per game of any team in the league.

What does that mean for the Sixers? Embiid will have to take advantage of his opportunities when he gets them. Quietly, his three-point percentage has started to come back to Earth after a hot start, and he has mostly offset up-and-down nights by getting to the charity stripe. There’s a high likelihood he won’t get to the line at his usual rate against Charlotte, and he’ll have to adjust accordingly.

Still, there’s not a one-on-one matchup he’s not equipped to win. He’s either bigger or more athletic (or both!) than every center in the Charlotte rotation, and they’ll likely have to shade help or hard-double him when he’s able to set up shop. That will put the onus on his supporting cast to make the Hornets pay.

Asking the surrounding talent to pick up the slack seemed like a dangerous proposition even just a month ago, but the Sixers have slowly started to settle in around their franchise center. T.J. McConnell has taken the starting point guard job and run with it, and Robert Covington is showing signs of breaking out of his season-long slump from deep. If the shooters do their jobs on offense — doesn’t it feel like it’s time for a good Ersan Ilyasova game? — Embiid and Nerlens Noel should be able to hold down the fort on the other end.

Embiid will sit out Saturday’s game against the Washington Wizards -- pour one out for the folks heading down as part of the “Bus The Process” trip -- so it would be nice for the team to keep the good vibes going before their best player takes his mandated rest. Game starts at 7 on CSN Philly, so don’t be late!

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