As you’d expect for a Sixers team that’s been without Joel Embiid and multiple key starters and rotation players, they couldn’t keep winning forever.
Philly’s latest defeat came against the Pacers on Saturday as they lost 118-113, failing to claw their way back after going down by as many as 20 points and giving up 70 points in the first half alone. This sends the Sixers to four straight losses and seventh place in the East with a 8-6 record, but it’s hard to be critical given how shorthanded they’ve been.
It won’t be easy for them to try to bounce back in Tuesday’s game, though. As the Sixers continue their gruelling road trip, they’ll be taking on the 8-5 Utah Jazz. The Sixers will at least be catching the Jazz in a bit of a cold spell, as they’ve lost two straight and four of their last five games.
Joel Embiid and Matisse Thybulle are both still out due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Ben Simmons (personal reasons) and Grant Riller (left knee surgery recovery) also remain out. And after being back for just four games, Danny Green bothered his left hamstring against the Pacers and will be out with left hamstring tightness.
Rudy Gay was Jazz’s main addition this summer, offering more defensive versatility and some shooting to help them downsize at times, but he’s still out as he finishes recovering from surgery on his right heel.
The Jazz may have slipped somewhat over the last week, but they still have a lot of weapons at their disposal. Rudy Gobert is still anchoring their defense and helping the offense as a screener and roller. Donovan Mitchell is leading the way with 25.6 points per game. Bojan Bogdanovic is smoothly operating off the ball and adding 17 points a night. Mike Conley is healthy and playing well after making his first All-Star game last season. Then there’s Royce O’Neale as a sound defender to round out their starting five, with Jordan Clarkson’s scoring and Joe Ingles’ savvy passing and shooting giving their offense more punch off the bench.
The Jazz’s three-point heavy play and fluid ball movement still has them ranked second in offensive rating (112.3) and third in net rating (+6.7). If the Sixers struggle to generate points in the paint against Gobert without Embiid (which is the main offensive concern for Tuesday) and have any cold spells from three, the Jazz could quickly pull away.
One positive for the Sixers is that they at least have Tobias Harris back in action now, who seems to be in fine shape after dealing with COVID-19. Harris is coming off a 32-point, 11-rebound performance against Indiana and averaged 29 points in two games against Utah last season — the Sixers will need more of the same from him against O’Neale and the Jazz on Tuesday.
If the Sixers want to keep this contest close, there’ll also be a lot of pressure on Andre Drummond to deliver in his increased role. Covering Gobert’s rolls to the rim as best as possible, handling him on the boards (Gobert is averaging a league-leading 15.3 rebounds per game this season), and not trying to force too many finishes will be essential if Drummond wants to give the Sixers a chance in a matchup where Embiid would have had the edge over Gobert. The Jazz also run the third most pick-and-rolls in the NBA, so Drummond remaining disruptive with his activity and quick hands when he comes up higher against ball screens would be a real help.
The next matchup to focus on will be how the Sixers’ backcourt covers Mitchell and Conley. Tyrese Maxey has continued to impress and elevate his play in all areas for this shorthanded team. He’s averaging 17.6 points per game with far better efficiency than his rookie season, taking his true shooting percentage from 53.1 to 60.7. This efficiency jump is largely thanks to terrific finishing at the rim (73.1 percent shooting within three feet of the basket) and improved three-point shooting (41.3 percent on 3.3 attempts per game) with more comfort to fire triples off the bounce. Over the last three games alone, Maxey has averaged 29.3 points with two 30-point outings. He’s on quite the run.
On top of that, he’s improved his defense with better positioning and sharper screen navigation, which (along with his motor and shifty quickness) has helped him fare well against top assignments like Damian Lillard and Trae Young. All of these skills will be critical on Tuesday whenever Maxey is tasked with containing Mitchell’s drive game, pull-up shooting, and heavy pick-and-roll usage — Mitchell is using pick-and-rolls in 49.2 percent of his possessions this season and ranks in the 90th percentile. Meanwhile, Seth Curry will have his work cut out for him trying to hang with Conley attacking in pick-and-rolls, and could easily be targeted by Utah.
Nine of the Sixers’ next 11 games are on the road. And with outings against teams like Golden State, Denver, Charlotte (twice) and Atlanta, there’ll be plenty of challenges along the way. As hard as the Sixers have continued to play, and as many reasons as there are to feel positive for when they’re at full strength with their improved depth and Maxey taking a leap, there’s no avoiding how tough this upcoming stretch will be.
For today, though, let’s just see if they can somehow find a way to end this losing streak and beat the Jazz.
When: 10:00 pm ET, November 16, 2021
Where: Vivint Arena, Salt Lake City, UT
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus, TNT
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic