The Sixers’ 102-93 victory against the Warriors on Saturday was easily their best win of the season so far. Joel Embiid led the way with 26 points and Philly’s defense locked in, led by a phenomenal performance from Matisse Thybulle to smother Steph Curry on and off the ball (Thybulle even became the first player to ever block multiple three-point attempts from Steph in a game).
On Monday, the Sixers are back on the road for one game against the Grizzlies, who are now 16-11 and up to fourth place in the Western Conference.
The Sixers will have good health on their side again in this matchup, as their entire rotation is off the injury report (Ben Simmons remains out, obviously).
Memphis, on the other hand, will continue to play shorthanded. Ja Morant is still out while he recovers from a left knee sprain and remains in health and safety protocols, while Brandon Clarke (right knee soreness), Ziaire Williams (left ankle sprain), and Sam Merrill (left ankle sprain) are all out, too. There’s a chance Embiid will be facing a depleted frontcourt as well — Jaren Jackson Jr. (left knee soreness) is questionable and Steven Adams (left ankle sprain) is doubtful.
The Grizzlies have been climbing up the West recently, winning eight of their last 12 games and earning wins in this stretch against the Jazz, Heat and Lakers. And they’ve done a lot of this without their star in the middle of a third-year leap, Morant.
The Grizzlies’ excellent depth makes it easier for them to stay competitive in stretches like this. But beyond just having a plethora of quality rotation players, the Grizzlies’ improved team defense has also been key to their recent performance — they only rank 23rd in defensive rating for the season, but seventh since Morant was sidelined.
They have sharper point-of-attack defense in place led by guys like Tyus Jones and especially De’Anthony Melton, others like Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks bothering opposing guards and wings, and solid center play from Adams and improved defense from Jackson Jr. (he’s been showing more of his upside as a shot blocker and switchy big lately). Morant’s absence does help at this end of the floor given his weaknesses navigating screens and guarding at the point of attack, but generally speaking, the team has locked down and upped its defensive game without him.
Their perimeter play and (maybe) Adam’s physicality against Embiid will give the Sixers a challenge on Monday. If Adams is out, then the 6’8” Xavier Tillman (a reliable, intelligent backup big at both ends of the floor) will have the tough task of spending more time guarding Embiid.
An important assignment for the Sixers’ defense in Morant’s absence will be Desmond Bane. He’s gone up a level this season, comfortably creating more off the dribble and significantly upping his scoring output from 9.2 points per game as a rookie to 16.4. He’s maintained high efficiency at the same time as well, shooting 39.9 percent from three on 6.6 attempts per game with a 58.1 true shooting percentage. And over the last eight games without Morant, Bane has raised his scoring even more to 18.6 points a night — he’s scored over 20 four times in this span. With his terrific range and shooting off movement, and tighter handle to find shots off the bounce and get to the rim, he’ll be a tricky cover for Danny Green and Thybulle, who should likely handle most of the assignment.
Jackson Jr. has also increased his scoring without Morant, shooting his typical array of threes while continuing to show more comfort as a driver. After a slower start to the season, the young big man has tallied 21 points, 41.3 percent three-point shooting on 6.6 attempts, and 1.9 blocks per game without Morant. If Jackson Jr. plays, his size when attacking more off the bounce will be a tough cover for Tobias Harris, and the Sixers will need to watch him closely at the arc — he’ll let it fly whenever he gets open off a pick-and-pop or relocates into space on the move.
Ideally for the Sixers, they’ll be able to keep rolling after their win against the Warriors. The Grizzlies are better built to play well through injuries than most teams, but the Sixers have at least caught a break by facing them when their offense is weaker without Morant and Embiid could have a favorable matchup if Jackson Jr. and/or Adams are out.
It’s safe to say grabbing a win on Monday would be timely, before the Sixers have a back-to-back starting with the Heat on Wednesday, followed by a road game in Brooklyn on Thursday.
When: 8:00 pm ET, December 13, 2021
Where: FedExForum, Memphis, TN
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic