Just last week the Sixers (20-20) held a nine-point lead entering halftime against the Boston Celtics (34-11) in London's O2 arena. Then, Boston's nucleus of Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named (Al Horford) helped ripped off a 37-point third quarter en route to a demoralizing 114-103 Celtics victory.
The Sixers staved off a Toronto Raptors comeback Monday to prevent another second-half meltdown, but earning their first 2017-18 regular season victory over Boston Thursday could be challenging. JJ Redick, per a team statement, is out with a bone crack in his left leg and will be evaluated in the upcoming weeks.
Redick succumbing to injury is a blow to any rotation and an already thin Sixers shooting guard depth chart could be tested. Jerryd Bayless is the likely play starting alongside Ben Simmons in the backcourt and, well, it'd be understandable to worry about his extended minutes.
Arguably the worst solution would be to rush Markelle Fultz back into the fold with a jacked up shooting form, so management's reluctancy in that regard is promising. Bayless will start in his first game since Dec. 23 against Toronto. Bayless might be entrusted with scoring off of ball screens and sets in his wheelhouse while recording a few efficient shooting nights in Redick's absence, but there's added responsibility built into a starting role.
Does Bayless turn a corner with his decision-making? Will his activity level spike on both ends? Can he prevent his flaws from overshadowing efficient shooting outings? These are some questions Bayless will answer with Redick on the shelf. Even if Bayless fails to deliver through the first three quarters, T.J. McConnell is about as good as it gets as a safety valve.
I'm a proponent of McConnell playing in crunch time minutes and continuing a 2017-18 stretch in which he's delivering on a consistent basis. Sure, Redick's untimely injury halts a promising January mini-run for the veteran (19.5 PPG, 53.3 FG, 48.1 3PFG) but Brett Brown will have to micromanage an unfortunate situation. Besides just being one of the easiest players to embrace and push for, McConnell has thoroughly outplayed fellow minutes competitor Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and figures to be an integral piece with Redick on the mend.
Irving went just 7-for-20 from the floor last week and to avoid the law of averages playing its part tonight, McConnell needs to be face guarding Boston's lead guard option. Bayless regularly folds when fighting through screens, and McConnell instills some confidence that Marcus Smart won't catch fire tonight.
There's also another storyline present at center, which all Sixers loyalists should be invested in tonight. Regardless of whether Embiid earns the All-Star starting nod tonight, he should be intent on posting a monster stat line tonight from either validation or exasperation via being spurned once again. He also needs his signature game against the Atlantic Division frontrunners.
Embiid is just 10-for-33 in his two games against Boston this year, and finding a rhythm early would give an obvious boost to Philadelphia's chances. Embiid shoulders a heavier offensive load and expectations with Redick unavailable. With the void of floor spacing, Embiid unlocking his perimeter game and acting as a center who'll pop the open three when defenders sag isn't tailor-made for his strengths but it's almost necessary.
Brown and co. don't want to witness Embiid working into his movements but fail to keep his vision intact when a help defender comes or settle off the dribble. They need best-center-in-the-East Embiid to show up tonight and assert himself. Ditto for Ben Simmons.
I like this stand-my-ground version of Simmons who doesn't fold to NBA veterans. Also, his rookie wall differs from traditional rookies, whereas his assertiveness and imprint on the game determine where he stands as a contributor on this team. Without his potent shooter at his disposal for the foreseeable future, Simmons will be naturally forced to dominate as a 21-year-old rookie vying to lead his team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. His case for Rookie of the Year hangs in the balance and a stat-stuffing outing tonight would provide some ease. Philadelphia travels to TD Garden for a primetime clash, looking to punctuate their first half of the season with a statement victory.
Game Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch: TNT