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Sixers-Mavericks Preview: Commence the NERLENS BOWL

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Washington Wizards Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

If you could manage to tear yourselves away from CBS & its affiliates to notice the world around you this week, you might have observed a special game on the Sixers’ schedule tonight: Nerlens Noel returns to Philadelphia in an opposing uniform for the first time.

If this fits the narrative that I want it to fit, this game will unquestionably be definitive proof that the Noel trade with Dallas was a travesty. If it doesn’t fit it, I’ll probably just skip writing the game recap.

That’s how this works, right?

In all seriousness, Dallas has looked fantastic since the All-Star Break, as they have gone 7-4 in that time, and have (shockingly) hoisted themselves into the conversation for the 8th seed in the West, although it remains a long shot. Nerlens has fit like a glove in Rick Carlisle’s system, where he has played in a spread floor on offense and has only been asked to rim run and pass, two skills at which he genuinely excels. Since moving to Dallas, his efficiency has dipped slightly from his Sixers’ numbers this year, but only negligibly, and he has continued to put up career high finishing numbers that dwarf his first two years.

Naturally, the Mavericks’ resurgence isn’t due entirely (or even mostly) to Nerlens, who has come off the bench to allow Dirk Nowitzki to start at the 5 next to 4 perimeter players. Dallas has given chief minutes to both Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry and its guard positions, and both players have excelled in the roles they’ve been asked to play. In 11 games since the All-Star Break, Curry has shot a scorching 49.2% from distance on nearly 6 3FGA’s per game, and has managed a ridiculous 67.3% TS.

This improved play has come as Dirk has enjoyed his best play of the season, and it has combined to make Dallas a difficult test. In the 11 games since the break, Dallas has outscored opponents by an average of 2.9 points per game, a rate that would put place them 3rd in the East and 5th in the West if it were sustained over an entire season.

So Dallas has been good.

The Sixers, meanwhile, have sucked at this whole “tanking” thing, after being way too good at it the last couple of seasons. Dario Saric’s improved play has been a joy to behold, and a boon to the franchise’s future, but it has allowed the Sixers to remain competitive in an awful lot of games, even notching some unexpected wins.

I expect Nerlens to be fired up, and to play with high intensity tonight. While intensity has not been a strength of Jahlil Okafor’s over his first two seasons in the league, he has had a tendency to get up for big matchups against perceived rivals (hey, have you guys familiarized yourselves with this YouTube video?!). This could wind up being one of his best games of the season, and one I look forward to watching, both for the Sixers’ players and to watch one of my favorite players from the Process years.

And while Nerlens may have had some questionable headlines over the years, there’s no doubt that he loved this city, and is willing to give back to the fans who supported him through thick and (mostly, almost entirely) thin.

Miss you, big guy.

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