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Sixers-Mavericks Preview: 76ers look to contain scorching Dallas

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The Sixers begin their West Coast trip against a surprisingly hot Dallas Mavericks team.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There was a four-game stretch when Philadelphia 76ers forward Robert Covington went 3-for-30 from the field earlier in the season. Visions of a possible, young replacement might have raced through the collective minds of fans. With the fluidity of NBA campaigns, the third-year forward has elevated his efficiency each month. Covington has progressively increased his shooting percentages, at a 31.0 percent clip in November, 40.8 percent throughout December and 43.2 percent to conclude January.

Over his last eight games, the ascending talent has averaged 15.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.2 steals while shooting 45.8 percent from the field. It’s easy to stick the “two-way player” label on a forward, but Covington has embodied that title lately. The one possession against Sacramento Monday, where he hounded nimble point guard Ty Lawson and later forced a steal, epitomizes the impact he can bring on the less glamorous end.

He does wander on defense at times and can rely on the swipe to compensate for his man driving by him, but Covington is a steadying presence for Brett Brown. Asked to mitigate Joel Embiid’s absence on offense, Covington has excelled with the big man on the pine. He’s 8-of-18 (44.4 percent) from deep over his last two games and the guards have effectively set him up for quality looks near the hoop.

However, Covington, along with Joel Embiid, will be absent for tonight’s game (see: below).

His matchup with Dallas small forward Harrison Barnes (20.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 17.9 PER) would’ve been intriguing, with both players catching fire late in January. Evolving into the team’s primary option offensively, Barnes has been the catalyst in the Mavericks’ push for the No. 8 seed. His massive offseason contract might’ve placed heightened expectations on him to make an immediate impact, but Barnes has been a consistent, versatile force since he signed to play with Mark Cuban. Revelation Seth Curry (11.3 PPG, 2.6 APG, 14.6 PER) recently finished his top statistical month with the Mavs, providing Barnes with a complement offensively.

For a team last in total points per game (97.1), the woeful number can be contributed to the earlier portion of the season. Missing franchise legend Dirk Nowitzki, who’s back from injury, and point guard a revolving door, the Mavericks appeared to have found a working game plan, eclipsing 100 points in five of their last six games. Winners of seven of their last ten, Dallas is a refreshing story out in the Western conference.

The team’s two recent, surprising victories over San Antonio and Cleveland were punctuated by a fiery addition in Yogi Ferrell. Like Chasson Randle, Ferrell is currently on a 10-day contract, previously playing with the Brooklyn Nets earlier in the season. After failing to join the Sixers roster after a workout in January, Ferrell appears to have found a residency in Dallas.

In his two games with the Mavericks, Ferrell is averaging 14.0 points, 5.0 APG, 3.0 SPG and has just two turnovers. This isn’t a player T.J. McConnell or Sergio Rodriguez can overlook due to his experience. The diminutive rookie is looking to continue this storybook ride.

McConnell is also taking advantage of a starting gig, totaling 10 or more assists in five of the last six games. The second-year point guard captivated the Sixers contingent throughout January and isn’t just getting easy assist opportunities. He’s flashed incredible passing accuracy and ability to convert difficult feeds while showcasing creativity with the ball. It’s been exciting watching No. 1 in the red, white and blue threads thrive as a starter.

Another spectacle recently has been Dario Saric (9.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG) no-look dishes and improved efficiency on his jumpers. The moxie and intensity has been consistent from the Croatian forward. Also, Nerlens Noel’s stable activity in Joel Embiid’s absence at the center position has been welcomed. Sporting a 12.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 2.5 SPG clip over his last two games, Noel (8.4 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 22.0 PER) continues his impressive recent play, amid trade rumors. With Dallas opting not to employ a traditional center recently, Noel could stand out tonight.

The Sixers (18-29) look to emerge victorious on the road without their stud rookie as they tussle with Dallas (18-30) at 8:30 p.m. ET.

UPDATE: Talk about a buzz kill!