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Sixers continue road trip with test against Damian Lillard’s Blazers

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NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers keep rolling. After a 119-111 road win against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, the Sixers, now 18-7 (14-0 when their full starting lineup plays), are still sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference. After the Kings’ hot first half and a subpar performance from Joel Embiid (he had his worst game in a few weeks, but still finished with 25 points, 17 rebounds and 6 assists with strong defense in the fourth quarter), the Sixers’ defense locked in and held the Kings to just 40 points in the second half.

To continue their road trip, the Sixers are heading to Portland on Thursday to face the Trail Blazers.

The Sixers’ first matchup against the Blazers on February 4 was an ugly one, resulting in a 121-105 loss against a heavily depleted opponent. Portland’s three best players — Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic — were all out, and the Sixers’ effort came up well short. Besides Embiid’s red-hot mid-range shooting clinic as he scored 37 points (going 14-of-21 from the floor and 9-of-9 from the free throw line), there weren’t many positives. The Blazers put together a well-rounded scoring effort, while the Sixers shot just 7-of-27 (25.9 percent) from three, committed 18 turnovers, and clearly missed Ben Simmons, who was out with calf tightness. Without Simmons, the decline in perimeter defense and the ability to get into the paint on offense and generate good three-point looks was evident.

Simmons will be available on Thursday and Seth Curry bounced back into form with 22 points against Sacramento, which is another positive. However, the Sixers’ main rotation might not be complete, as Shake Milton is now doubtful with a left ankle sprain. Plus, the Sixers will have more of a challenge on their hands now that the Blazers’ best player has returned. While McCollum (left foot sprain), Nurkic (right wrist fracture) and Zach Collins (left ankle stress fracture) all remain out, Damian Lillard is back. He’s been available for the Blazers’ last two games since their contest against the Sixers — they lost 110-99 to the New York Knicks, then picked up a 106-97 win against the Orlando Magic.

Lillard, as always, has been the Blazers’ driving force this season. He’s led them to 5th place in the Western Conference with a 13-10 record and the 7th-ranked offense in the NBA, which is especially impressive when considering how shorthanded they’ve been. Lillard is averaging 29.4 points and 7.1 assists per game with a career-high 63.3 True Shooting Percentage. Portland’s main problems are still coming on defense, where they’ve struggled in all areas to rank a terrible 28th this season. Simmons should be able to hurt them if he’s aggressive getting to the rim, and this should yet again be a very favorable matchup for Embiid as well.

How much Simmons’ return affects this matchup (and whether he spends much time guarding Lillard) will be interesting to watch. Lillard’s return is the biggest test for the Sixers and their pick-and-roll defense in this game, which means Matisse Thybulle likely has another challenge in store. Thybulle has been playing exceptional defense over the last few weeks, and most recently slowed down De’Aaron Fox in the Sixers’ strong fourth quarter to close out the Kings.

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Portland Trail Blazers
When: 10:00pm ET
Where: Moda Center, Portland, OR
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus, TNT
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic
Follow: @Liberty_Ballers