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Sixers face tough test against thriving Grizzlies

Sacramento Kings v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

After recovering from a shaky first half to beat the Kings 103-101, the Sixers have a tougher challenge in store for them on Monday. They’ll be taking on the Grizzlies, who have continued to rise up the Western Conference and now boast a 35-17 record and third-place spot in the standings.

Memphis won’t quite be at full health for Monday’s game. Dillon Brooks is still sidelined with an ankle sprain and Tyus Jones is questionable to return from COVID-19 health and safety protocols. For the Sixers, Furkan Korkmaz is questionable with left knee soreness, while Shake Milton remains out with a back contusion.

The Grizzlies have been one of the NBA’s most entertaining teams to watch this season. They’ve hit their stride even more over the last month as well, with a 16-3 record and the league’s sixth-best net rating (+6.7) since Christmas.

Ja Morant has been having a phenomenal season, truly becoming one of the better guards in the entire league and a worthy All-Star starter. He’s also entering Monday’s game riding a particularly hot spell of play after scoring at least 30 points in each of the last six games. In addition to his improved three-point shooting (36.4 percent on 4.5 attempts per game, with more comfort firing off the bounce), containing his dynamic drives will be a handful for the Sixers’ defense to say the least. He can explode past/over anyone, use an array of acrobatic finishes and footwork to manipulate defenders, and he’s making a super efficient 69.8 percent of his shots at the rim. Tyrese Maxey and Matisse Thybulle should handle the bulk of the Morant assignment, giving them both a challenge that will be key in determining Monday’s outcome.

Morant has plenty more help on the perimeter, too. Second-year guard Desmond Bane has been fantastic this season. He should be a favorite for Most Improved Player of the Year after elevating his points per game from 9.2 as a rookie to 17.8 this season, all while effectively taking on more ball-handling responsibility and showcasing more of what he can do as a passer and driver. He’s creating more of his own shots this season and still has a 58.8 true shooting percentage. Keeping up with Bane as he relocates for open threes, shoots at a variety of angles, uses his strength to drive to the rim, and makes sharp kick-out passes when he initiates offense next to Morant will require a strong effort from Philly’s wings.

With so much dependable depth as well, from guards like John Konchar and De’Anthony Melton to Brandon Clarke (who’s upped his game lately), the Grizzlies’ bench often gives them an advantage over their opponents. The Sixers at least having Danny Green back now, giving them another reliable presence at both ends of the floor, will be a real help against Memphis’ bevy of perimeter talent.

The Grizzlies can fly up the court in a hurry, too. They’re ninth in overall pace but lead the NBA in fast break points at 16.9 per game, benefiting from shooters like Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. stretching the floor on the wings and a special athlete like Morant pressuring the rim. Basically, the Sixers’ often lacklustre transition defense will be tested. Making a consistent effort to recover, communicate, and match up quickly in transition will be even more important for the Sixers in this one.

This game could also be a bit harder on Joel Embiid than some of his recent matchups. Steven Adams isn’t the player he used to be, but he’s strong and has the kind of physicality in the post that has bothered Embiid somewhat in the past. Plus, with the improved defense of the 6-foot-11 Jackson Jr. at the 4, the Grizzlies have more size and weak-side rim protection that they can throw Embiid’s way to try to crowd him in the paint.

Jackson Jr. is agile shifting out to the perimeter and has developed his discipline as a rim protector this season to increase the amount of shots he can deter while lowering his foul-rate to a career-best level. He’s also been on absolute tear as a block machine this month — he’s averaging a whopping 3.9 blocks a night over his last 12 games. How Embiid handles double teams from the Grizzlies’ well-coached, eighth-ranked defense and deals with their starting frontcourt duo will be interesting to focus on after his recent domination against some weaker opponents.

Adams’ rebounding is something else to keep an eye on. He’s long been one of the NBA’s top offensive rebounders, and currently leads the league in offensive rebound percentage at 17.2 — his total of 207 offensive boards leads the league, even though he only plays 25.9 minutes per game. For a Sixers team that rank just 22nd in defensive rebounding percentage, Adams will likely cause some problems with his work on the glass.

This will be the hardest game the Sixers have had in weeks. But if they lock in and bring their best defensively, this matchup should be a lot of fun.

Update: It’s going to be far more difficult for the Sixers to win tonight’s game now, as Embiid is now out for rest. He played the last 21 games, averaging 33 minutes a night.

Game Info

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Memphis Grizzlies

When: 7:00 pm ET, January 31, 2022

Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA

Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @Liberty_Ballers

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