For the Sixers’ last game of 2021, they’re finishing off a three-game road trip with a challenge. After Joel Embiid scored 36 points and carried them to a win (what’s new?) in their last game against a majorly depleted Raptors team, the Sixers are taking on the 23-9 Brooklyn Nets. A team that, despite dealing with many injuries and COVID-related absences of their own, still has a 23-9 record and sits atop the Eastern Conference.
Day’Ron Sharpe, Kessler Edwards and David Duke Jr. are all out in COVID-19 health and safety protocols for Thursday’s contest. Kyrie Irving also remains out, as does Joe Harris as he continues to recover from ankle surgery. Brooklyn will be getting some key players back, though. LaMarcus Aldridge (who’s been scoring well this season) and Kevin Durant (who’s been phenomenal, as per usual, and leads the NBA in scoring) have both cleared health and safety protocols and are available.
Meanwhile, the Sixers are also getting healthier. While Danny Green is still out in health and safety protocols and Shake Milton has only been upgraded to questionable, Andre Drummond is now off the injury report to offer some more size and depth at center again after missing four games. Ben Simmons obviously remains out for personal reasons.
As the Nets have dealt with Irving’s continued absence due to refusing to be vaccinated, Harris being sidelined since mid November, and various players missing time in health and safety protocols, including short absences this month from Durant and Harden, they’ve just kept picking up wins. Young guys like Edwards and Cam Thomas have had to step into increased roles, while more experience veterans like Patty Mills have upped their game as needed.
Mills in particular has been a fantastic support to the Nets’ stars this season, adding a welcome scoring punch and valuable off-ball movement and shooting. He’s now up to a career-high 14.4 points per game for the season, after exploding recently with two 30-point outings in his last five games.
Now, with Durant back and Harden coming into form (he’s started to look more like his usual self athletically in recent weeks, and has scored 75 points over the last two games since returning from health and safety protocols), the Nets have a good chance to keep hold of the No. 1 seed as long as they’re close to healthy.
Apart from a solid 117-96 win against the Wizards on Dec. 26 and a 108-103 win against the Celtics before Christmas, the Sixers have mostly been trudging along recently. They haven’t stepped up with appropriate efforts against various undermanned teams, and wouldn’t have had much of a chance without Embiid playing at such a high level lately.
Since Embiid returned on Nov. 27 after having COVID-19, he’s been on a tear. In this 14-game stretch he’s averaged 28.9 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists (to only 2.3 turnovers), 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game with a 61.1 true shooting percentage. As the season has progressed he’s come into form on offense, asserting himself inside more and getting to the free throw line while finding his rhythm with his jumper. With sharper passing and excellent defense to go along with his offensive production, he’s building off his MVP-candidate season last year. Against Brooklyn’s centers like the slender Nicolas Claxton, Aldridge, and smaller bigs like Paul Millsap, Embiid will have another set of favorable matchups to attack on Thursday.
If the Sixers get Embiid firing on all cylinders against the Nets, then they have a chance — as they do against anyone when the big fella is rolling. If Matisse Thybulle is on his A game against Harden, Tobias Harris heats up, Tyrese Maxey is involved enough in the offense (which hasn’t been the case nearly as much as it should have since Embiid’s return), and the Nets aren’t at their best offensively, maybe the Sixers can finish 2021 with a win.
It’s only been two weeks since we saw a Nets team without most of their rotation beat the Sixers, though. There’s little anyone can do to slow down Durant, so Thybulle’s coverage of Harden and Maxey’s defense against the red-hot Mills will be key defensive matchups to monitor.
In their current form, it’ll be difficult for the Sixers to pull off a victory in this one.
When: 7:00 pm ET, December 30, 2021
Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, NY
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic