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Sixers return home to face shorthanded Blazers

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Portland Trail Blazers Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers keep on rolling. They defeated the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday, 118-111, and controlled the game except for a few spells where the Hornets cut the Sixers’ lead to single digits in the second half. Joel Embiid completely dominated the contest at both ends of the floor, leading the way with 34 points (11-of-18 shooting, including 3-of-5 from three) and stellar defense. The victory further solidified the Sixers’ spot at the top of the Eastern Conference with a 16-6 record.

For their next outing, they are returning to Philly on Thursday to take on the Portland Trail Blazers in their second game of this week’s back-to-back.

The Blazers have gone 5-5 in their last 10 games and are stuck in 7th place in the Western Conference. They’ve suffered some significant injuries this year which has made an already fierce playoff race in the West even tougher. C.J. McCollum is sidelined for at least a couple more weeks with a small hairline fracture in his left foot, and he’s now missed the last seven games. He’d been having a career year to start the season, too. He was averaging career-highs in points (26.7) and assists (5) per game, while shooting at a phenomenal clip from three with a 44.1 percent stroke on 11 attempts a game.

Besides Zach Collins who hasn’t played yet this season due to a stress fracture in his left ankle, Jusuf Nurkic is also out with a right wrist fracture.

Portland has been getting extra contributions from guys like Enes Kanter, Anfernee Simons, and Gary Trent Jr, a quality two-way wing who’s upped his scoring lately to average 18 points (while shooting 48.2 percent from three on 9.3 attempts) over the last six games. And even without guys like McCollum and Nurkic recently, the Blazers still rank 6th in offensive rating for the season. Damian Lillard has been sensational as always, putting up 29.1 points and 7.3 assists per game with a career-high True Shooting Percentage of 63.1.

The Blazers’ main problem is their defense, which ranks a useless 29th this season. They’ve been allowing the 5th-most three-point attempts in the league (37.6 per game) and the 9th-highest shooting percentage in the restricted area (65.3).

Beyond their defensive issues, though, they could also be even more shorthanded against the Sixers. New starter Derrick Jones Jr. is questionable with a left foot sprain, forward Nassir Little is out with a left knee sprain, and Lillard is now listed as questionable with an abdominal strain.

Embiid isn’t listed on the NBA injury report and he had four days off before playing the Hornets, but this could be an opportunity to get him some extra rest or at least keep his minutes low.

If Lillard does play, he’ll give the Sixers’ guards and pick-and-roll defense a major test. He scores at a high level from every area of the floor and is one of the premier pull-up shooters in the league, with more range than anyone not named Stephen Curry. Lillard is one of the most high-volume pick-and-roll players in the NBA, and his elite scoring off the bounce is one of the reasons he ranked in the 95th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in 2019-20 and the 94th so far this season. Whether Doc Rivers opts to put Ben Simmons on Lillard when the starters are in, how Matisse Thybulle fares, and how Embiid and Dwight Howard do when coming up higher against screens to help limit Lillard’s pull-up attempts will be key to watch.

Even though this will be the second game of a back-to-back for the Sixers, they could have far more firepower at their disposal to take control of this game. At the very least, no McCollum and Nurkic hinders the Blazers’ offensive creation and takes away a strong center they’d have needed to throw at Embiid. If Lillard is out, too, this game will be awfully one-sided in the Sixers’ favor.

Who: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Philadelphia 76ers
When: 8:00pm ET
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic
Follow: @Liberty_Ballers