The Sixers certainly didn’t have the most convincing mini-series against the Hornets, but the positive is they at least picked up two wins and Joel Embiid seems to be settling into form on offense. The big fella was dominant on both ends of the floor and had his way against a small, depleted Hornets frontcourt, scoring 75 total points and going 27-of-33 from the free throw line over the two games.
As the Sixers return home, they’ll immediately be faced with a challenge against the 17-7 Utah Jazz, currently sitting at third place in the Western Conference. This will be the second night of a back-to-back for both teams, after the Jazz rolled past the Timberwolves for a 136-104 win on Wednesday.
In fact, the Jazz have been rolling all season so far, boasting the second-best net rating in the NBA at +10.3. And with their plethora of smart passers, ball-handlers and shooters who all play so well off each other (from Donovan Mitchell, to Bojan Bogdanovic, to a healthy Mike Conley), they lead the league in offensive rating by a comfortable margin at a stellar 116.9. Plus, after a slower start on defense, they’re now up to eighth in defensive rating as well.
Mitchell has been on a tear recently, too. He’s scored at least 30 points in each of his past four games while shooting 58.1 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from three on 10.5 attempts per game. He’s letting it fly from deep even more this year (averaging a career-high 9.3 three-point attempts per game), so the Sixers’ pick-and-roll coverage will have to be on point to keep him in check. Bringing bigs higher against ball screens and throwing a few more hedges at Mitchell could help. For the season, Mitchell’s now averaging 24.7 points per game with a 56.6 true shooting percentage. How Tyrese Maxey (who’s competed well against some top guards this season) and the Sixers handle Mitchell will be the biggest defensive matchup to focus on.
The Jazz also have Rudy Gay now since he returned to play on November 18. He’s a helpful addition for them, providing a bit more size and switchyness on defense with complementary scoring and shooting. He’s averaging 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.2 minutes a night, while shooting 43.4 percent from three on 5.3 attempts through his first 10 games off the bench.
The Sixers were demolished by the Jazz in their first game of the season, losing 120-85 on the road on November 16. It was Philly’s worst loss in an otherwise competitive stretch of play when they were shorthanded, but without Embiid they couldn’t keep up. On Thursday, with their full starting lineup and most importantly Embiid, who’s had success against Rudy Gobert before (like his phenomenal 40-point, 19-rebound game in a win during March last season), the Sixers have a better chance this time around. If Embiid can be effective against Gobert in one-on-one coverage again and the Jazz have to send more aggressive double-teams, that will be huge in opening up better looks for others this time.
Unsurprisingly, the Sixers’ offense has often sputtered when Embiid has been off the floor lately since his return. With less clear structure and limited playmaking and downhill threat when guys like Shake Milton and Tobias Harris are leading the way, there are going to be cold stretches of play. This execution, combined with failing to match Charlotte’s energy and pace too often and some defensive lapses, helped make the last two games against the Hornets more difficult than they should have been. The Sixers will need to do what they can to correct those issues and up their intensity if they want to beat the Jazz.
One way to give the offense more life in such situations could be to give Maxey more of his minutes with backup-based lineups — something that hasn’t happened too much so far this season. Of course, Maxey building chemistry with Embiid is key and something that will need to be polished as the season continues if this offense is going to come near its potential. But to give bench-heavy lineups more juice off the dribble and a legitimate threat to attack the rim, increasing Maxey’s run with such units could help. And against some of the stingy defenses that the Sixers will be facing this month, it’s certainly worth a try. Giving Maxey a more hands-on role in these stretches could help him get over some of his recent struggles. He’s down to an average of 11 points and 30 percent shooting over his last six games, but also needs to be featured more prominently — he had just five field goal attempts against the Hornets on Wednesday.
Another potential rotation change that could help is giving Isaiah Joe more minutes when other wings like Matisse Thybulle have a hard time, as Thybulle did on Wednesday. When given the chance, Joe has shown plenty of promise with his shooting skillset and sound defense.
The Sixers’ schedule for the rest of December is a real grind, and ramping things up after playing the shorthanded Hornets with home games against Utah tonight then Golden State on Saturday is a daunting start. If the Sixers can find one win from this two-game slate, that would be a fine result.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Utah Jazz
When: 7:00 pm ET, December 9, 2021
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic