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Sixers look to start new year on right foot in Houston

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There’s no room for hindsight in 2020

NBA: Houston Rockets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, what a difference a week makes. Spirits were high after the Sixers’ dominant Christmas Day victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. Since then, however, Philadelphia has lost three straight games on the road, Josh Richardson called for more “accountability” in the locker room, and the usual trade rumors and “Fire Brett Brown” buzzards are circling. Suddenly, the Bucks win, in addition to literally happening last year, seems like a lifetime ago. The Sixers are Peter Campbell and things are “Not Great, Philadelphia.” Perfect timing for a nationally-televised road game against the 23-11 Houston Rockets!

Tonight will be the first meeting this season between these two clubs. Last season, each team won easily on its own home floor. Philadelphia’s win last January included Joel Embiid’s memorable chasedown block of Rockets star James Harden (speaking of things that were a lifetime ago — that was also the Corey Brewer game).

That play came moments after an Embiid foul made things between the pair a little testy.

But stuff between Embiid and Harden seems downright congenial compared to the feelings between Joel and the newer member of Houston’s backcourt, Russell Westbrook. Let’s try to quickly run through the major moments in the Embiid-Westbrook feud.

We’ve seen Westbrook wave goodbye to Joel after Oklahoma City won a game in triple overtime...

Embiid absolutely obliterate Russ with a dunk and staredown (although the Thunder would get that win as well)...

The 2018 All-Star game where Embiid hit a 3 in Russ’ face and then blocked him (again, it was an All-Star game!)...

And Embiid return the wave to Russ after Westbrook fouled out of a game, although the Thunder would win once again, leading to the legendary “He’s always in his feelings” line.

We wouldn’t be remiss to expect another fine cut of beef tonight. Embiid missed the Sixers’ last game against the Pacers on New Year’s Eve with knee soreness. However, Joel was a full participant in practice yesterday, supporting the theory that Tuesday’s absence was load management-related in order to give him nearly a full week between games to rest up. It’s a good thing, too, because the Sixers desperately need their best defender on the court as a last line of defense against James Harden.

The Beard is averaging an absurd 38.2 points per game, more than anybody in NBA history not named Wilt Chamberlain. In true Moreyball fashion, Harden leads the league in 3-point makes (5.2) and attempts (13.5) per game, able to shoot those triples from anywhere, at any angle, with even the slightest sliver of space, and hit at a 38.3 percent clip. He also leads the league in free throws made (10.6) and attempted (12.3) per game, converting those freebies at 86.0 percent. How much the Sixers double-team, and where they send those doubles from will be one of the game’s most interesting wrinkles to watch tonight.

Another potentially interesting development concerns a Sixer who could be seeing his first action of the season. With Matisse Thybulle out and James Ennis doubtful with an illness, Zhaire Smith could make his season debut tonight. The 20-year-old was called up from the G League and joined the team in Houston. Zhaire seems to have quickly shifted from intriguing prospect to “guy thrown into every trade possibility because he has one of the few workable salaries.” I’m excited to see him on an NBA court again. Maybe it comes tonight.

The Sixers could blow the doors off one of the best teams in the league. They could also lay another egg like we saw in Indiana. The level of their performance is fairly uncertain, but I’m almost positive with James Harden and Russell Westbrook in the mix, tonight’s proceedings will be very interesting.

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Houston Rockets
When: 8:00 pm ET
Where: Toyota Center, Houston, TX
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic
Follow: @Liberty_Ballers

Injuries

Philadelphia: Matisse Thybulle (out - knee); James Ennis (doubtful - illness); Kyle O’Quinn (questionable - illness)
Houston: Tyson Chandler (questionable - shoulder/ribs); Nene Hilario (out - abductor); Gerald Green (out - foot)