Everybody’s favorite undefeated NBA team returns to action tonight in Phoenix, and the host Suns are well aware of the stakes:
The 5-0 Sixers will once again be without Joel Embiid, serving the final game of his two-game suspension before re-joining the team in Utah. Elton Brand’s efforts to bolster the roster in the event of Embiid’s absence paid huge dividends in the comeback win over Portland Saturday night. Kyle O’Quinn provided a solid 18 minutes off the bench, chipping in nine points and seven rebounds, and flashing that underrated vision with five assists. Of course, Al Horford was the first line of defense with another terrific effort. Not only did Big Al continue to do all the little things that create a positive impact, but he took a career-high-tying 24 field goal attempts to pour in 25 points. The Sixers’ highs aren’t as high without Embiid, but they no longer drop to a Mariana Trench-like low without him.
They’ll need everyone on their A-games against Phoenix, as the Suns have been one of the pleasant surprises to start the NBA season. The Suns sit at 4-2 on the year, but sport the second-best net rating in the league at plus-8.5 (the Sixers are fourth at plus-7.7). Phoenix’s strong start is even more impressive given the team has played all but the season opener without former first overall pick Deandre Ayton, who is in the middle of a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a diuretic.
In Ayton’s absence, the Suns have been starting former Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes. The Aussie has branched out from only killing the Sixers from behind the arc, and now knocks them down regardless of the opponent (12-of-26, 46.2 percent from 3 on the season). Forever Sixer Dario Saric has been starting alongside Baynes after coming over in an offseason trade from Minnesota. The Home has been inconsistent with his production, but consistent with his good cheer, undoubtedly.
Of course, any Suns discussion has to revolve around Devin Booker, who is trying to evolve from a good-stats, bad-team guy, to a legitimate star in the league. Playing alongside a competent point guard for the first time in his career in free agent acquisition Ricky Rubio, Booker has seen his usage rate drop from 32.0 percent last season, to 27.1 percent this year. However, the slight drop-off in ball-handling responsibility seems to have helped Booker’s efficiency, as the guard is shooting career-bests of 49.1 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from 3.
If Brett Brown sticks with the starting lineup from Saturday night, it will be interesting to see whether he opts to go with Josh Richardson or Matisse Thybulle on Booker. However, Brown inserted the yellow-booted-GAWD Furkan Korkmaz in place of Thybulle to start the second half in Portland, so we might see more of the clutch-shooting Turkish hero instead.
Between Saric and former Villanova wing and for-20-minutes-or-so-a-Sixer Mikal Bridges, Philadelphia has some fun ties to Phoenix (not to mention the shared history with the Colangelo family — I might prefer goat droppings in the executive office to those vipers). Enjoy some slightly earlier West Coast action as the Sixers try to show the Suns what a real top-5 net-rating squad looks like.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Phoenix Suns
When: 9:00 pm ET
Where: Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix, AZ
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic
Philadelphia: Joel Embiid (out - suspension); Shake Milton (out - knee)
Phoenix: Ty Jerome (out - ankle)