The Sixers are playing great right now. Even with Joel Embiid struggling to score like his usual self, Tobias Harris missing the last three games due to health and safety protocols, Danny Green missing two games with a hamstring injury, and Ben Simmons still out for the foreseeable future, the Sixers are 7-2 and first place in the East. With five straight wins — including three impressive victories against the Hawks, Blazers and Bulls — the Sixers are on a roll.
On Saturday night, they’ll be finishing off their two-game road trip with their second matchup of the early season against the Chicago Bulls.
Unfortunately, the list of Sixers players out due to health and safety protocols has increased, as Harris, Isaiah Joe, and now Matisse Thybulle are all listed as out. Simmons (personal reasons) and Grant Riller (recovering from knee surgery) are both out as well. There is at least the possibility of some help returning, as Green and Furkan Korkmaz (right wrist soreness) are now listed as questionable. As for Chicago, their bench will still be depleted, with Coby White (shoulder injury management) and Patrick Williams (left thumb ligament tear) both listed as out.
The Sixers won their first contest against the Bulls on Wednesday, 103-98, leading for almost the entire game until Chicago tied the score at 87 with 6:30 left in the fourth quarter. From there, the Sixers put together a 13-4 run and held on, led by excellent team defense and a few big shots from Seth Curry. Finally, they sealed the win in the last 15 seconds with two critical plays: a pull-up jumper from Curry, and a stellar block from Joel Embiid on a driving DeMar DeRozan.
To beat a strong opponent without Simmons, Harris and Green, and with Embiid shooting just 6-of-18? That’s quite a result.
Saturday’s rematch will be another challenging, interesting game. Especially with the Sixers’ shortened rotation and a weakened defense without Thybulle. The Bulls are still third in the East at 6-2 with the league’s fifth-best net rating at +7. DeRozan has given the offense a clear lift with his creation and playmaking, and is averaging a team-high 27 points per game with a 59.5 true shooting percentage. Along with Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic (who’s off to a cool start this season but is still one of the league’s better offensive centers), Lonzo Ball as a connecting player with his quick-hitting passing and 40 percent three-point shooting, and Alex Caruso for smart complementary play and quality defense, the Bulls have a lot of talent. Even role players like Javonte Green, who’s providing a welcome dose of energy and defense, help fill out their team nicely.
Everyone is stepping up for the Sixers right now. Curry is averaging a career-high 17.8 points per game and leads the NBA in true shooting percentage at 76.1 percent, as he stays aggressive, effective off the dribble, and absurdly efficient (you can read more on his lights-out start to the season here). Tyrese Maxey continues to impress with improved efficiency in his larger role and strong defense against a variety of top assignments. Korkmaz has improved every year of his career and that hasn’t changed this season, as he’s showcased helpful growth as a playmaker and ball-handler. Shake Milton has consistently played well since returning from injury five games ago, averaging 11.4 points and 3.4 assists. Meanwhile, new additions Georges Niang and Andre Drummond have both been thriving in their roles as upgrades off the bench.
With how well the Sixers’ bench is playing right now, their second unit should continue to give them an advantage against the Bulls and remains something to focus on, especially with multiple starters still sidelined.
Nevertheless, as good as the team’s role players have been, they could use a better offensive showing from Embiid. His combination of agility attacking with face-ups and strength in the post is too much for Vucevic to handle, if Embiid can find his comfort down low and finally heat up from mid-range.
As for defensive assignments, can the Sixers do any more to slow down DeRozan? He went off for 37 points on 13-of-22 shooting on Wednesday. As long as Green is fully recovered and ready to come back, his return would be a major help in having another defender with size to throw at the 6’6”, mid-range dynamo DeRozan.
Thybulle had another disruptive defensive performance against the Bulls earlier in the week, racking up three steals and two blocks in the process. Despite being beaten by LaVine at times, Thybulle also generally guarded the All-Star scorer well (as he has in the past, too). Thybulle’s absence significantly weakens Philly’s perimeter defense, and without him, Maxey could take on the challenge of guarding LaVine instead. Maxey has impressed on defense, as he’s continued to handle tough assignments and compete well against guards like Damian Lillard and Trae Young.
It also helps to have Embiid securing the paint and guarding Vucevic (who scored a mere four points on 2-of-7 shooting against the Sixers in the week), as he continues to play like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate this season.
These new-look Sixers are a lot of fun to watch right now. But Thybulle’s absence, when the team was already depleted enough, really hurts in a matchup against a Bulls team with so much offensive talent. Without at least one of Korkmaz or Green returning to help the wing rotation, the Sixers are going to be at a real disadvantage for this game.
Can they find a way to keep this streak going and hold onto their spot at the top of the Eastern Conference?
When: 8:00 pm ET, November 6, 2021
Where: United Center, Chicago, IL
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic