The Philadelphia 76ers’ first game after the All-Star break, a road matchup against the Chicago Bulls, won’t exactly be what fans were hoping for. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are both out due to health and safety protocols after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 before they made their trip to Atlanta for the All-Star game. The important news is that they’ve been testing negative since. They’re both completing a seven-day quarantine, and as long as they continue to test negative, Embiid will be cleared by Friday and Simmons will be cleared by Saturday.
For now, though, the Sixers will be shorthanded. The Bulls, who are now 16-18 and 9th place in the Eastern Conference, should be at mostly full strength. Lauri Markkanen (right shoulder sprain) and Otto Porter Jr. (lower back spasms) are both listed as probable to return after being out since early February. It will be unfair to expect Markkanen to return to form right away, but he’d been having a much better season this year before his injury, averaging career-highs in scoring (19.1 points per game) and true shooting percentage (65.4).
The Sixers’ last game against the Bulls (a 112-105 win on February 19) was decided by Embiid dominating with 50 points on 17-of-26 shooting, so clearly the nature of the matchup will be entirely different this time. The Sixers will have to lean on their guards and Tobias Harris for their offense instead, rather than letting Embiid bully the Bulls’ smaller, weaker big men. Dwight Howard will be able to step into the starting lineup in Embiid’s place, and Shake Milton would make sense as the second new starter for Simmons to ensure there’s enough ball-handling besides Seth Curry.
Tobias Harris will need to pick up a lot of the scoring load if the Sixers want to win, and he’s coming into the game on a high. In the Sixers’ win over the Utah Jazz just before the All-Star break, Harris was instrumental in deciding the game with 11 points in overtime. One adjustment Doc Rivers should look at more is increasingly staggering Harris with second units — it’s something Rivers has done this season, but not as much in recent weeks. In 153 minutes, the Sixers have actually had a +5.28 net rating when Harris is on the floor without Simmons and Embiid. Obviously this is a very small sample and shouldn’t be taken too seriously, but it at least reinforces the idea that Harris has helped bench lineups so far as a reliable scorer. He’ll need to step up as a lead creator again on Thursday.
Guarding Zach LaVine without the help of Ben Simmons will be the biggest challenge for the Sixers’ defense. LaVine was a worthy All-Star this year for the jump he’s taken as a scorer (averaging 28.7 points per game and shooting 43.5 percent from three on 8.1 attempts a night) and improvements he’s made as a playmaker. The Bulls’ defense has hurt them this season, but their offense ranks a respectable 15th with LaVine leading the way. They get to the rim at a decent rate (11th in attempts in the restricted area) which will pressure Howard in Embiid’s absence, and they’ll have more three-point shooting for the Sixers to worry about if Porter and Markkanen do return.
Seth Curry and Danny Green will obviously be outmatched against LaVine off the dribble, so we should see a healthy share of minutes for Matisse Thybulle in this game. Besides a few nights where he wasn’t at his best leading up to the All-Star break, Thybulle’s defense has generally been brilliant over the last two months.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Chicago Bulls
When: 8:00 pm ET
Where: United Center, Chicago, IL
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic