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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Blazers preview with Danny Marang

Getting a little insight about Saturday’s opponent.

Portland Trail Blazers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Danny Marang, who covers the Portland Trail Blazers for SB Nation’s Blazers Edge.

What’s one key matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

Jusuf Nurkic or Larry Nance Jr. vs. the Sixers’ frontcourt.

Nurkic got handled by Andre Drummond in their first matchup, one that Portland folks will tell you was not a great sign for a guy in Nurkic, who openly blamed his former coach for being under utilized. New coach, same shortcomings and mistakes. While Nurkic has shown more over the last few weeks, so has Nance Jr. So, will Portland opt to stick with Nurkic (with or without Embiid on the floor) or opt for Nance Jr. and small ball?

What’s your assessment on Portland’s season thus far and its outlook moving forward?

Wild swings between unwatchable basketball and James Naismith smiling down from basketball heaven have made figuring out this team near impossible. Until recently, they hadn’t played a close, competitive game so there is/was a ton of noise in any kind of analytics. We know Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have struggled. They can’t get stops at the point of attack. But even with struggles from their backcourt, they’re an extremely talented offense.

Stop me if this sounds exactly the same as previous iterations of the Lillard era. The new wrinkles of Anfernee Simons, Nassir Little and Nance have easily been the best/most enjoyable part of the team this year. Particularly as the bad vibes of the general manager Neil Olshey investigation hang over the franchise. What we know right now about this team is that we know very little about what they are. The lack of identity and focus has probably been the actual identity and that’s a difficult place to be.

How that all comes together (or doesn’t) alongside the Olshey investigation will determine how the season shakes out. They’re at a fork in the road that has many paths — only by eliminating variables will they be able to tighten their focus.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

The Simons/Little/Nance lineup group has been the best and most productive — consistently providing energy where there is otherwise none. I openly joked on Twitter that the starters should be carrying the bench’s bags on road trips because the bench has saved the starting unit so many times this year. It’s a masochistic love for the Blazers in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s fitting that around the time Lillard has a competent-to-good bench unit, the starters fall apart.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

Lillard and McCollum are mired in their worst stretches of their careers. I’ll go a step further and say that the fact they are still together is actually the biggest disappointment. Year six of “this time, it’ll be different, I swear” had been as predictable as seasons 3-5. Clearly, they need new writers for the NBA script. Flat, lifeless, dejected and without spirit are not what you commonly associate with Lillard-led teams. But they’ve been one of the worst first-quarter teams in the league and that has fallen squarely on the shoulders of their starting guards.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this game?

Tone-setting. If the starters actually have “juice,” that could spell early doom for Philly as Portland has not had that often. The other would be Simons getting hot in a quarter. Much like Lillard, he can single-handedly turn games on their head with his scoring outbursts when he gets hot. With Simons, though, you typically don’t see it coming until it’s too late.