The Sixers have now won five straight games. Not every win has been super convincing and there have been struggles along the way, from poor defense to shorthanded rotations, but they’re winning and Joel Embiid is absolutely rolling.
On Friday, the Sixers will have the chance to go for their sixth straight win at home as they take on the San Antonio Spurs, currently sitting at 15-22 and 10th place in the Western Conference.
As we’ve seen an awful lot this season, the Sixers will be playing without a full rotation. Tyrese Maxey, Paul Reed and Jaden Springer remain out in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, while Shake Milton is still out with a back contusion. Ben Simmons (personal reasons) is obviously out as usual. Danny Green (left calf tightness) and Isaiah Joe (back pain) are both questionable.
The one good update is that Matisse Thybulle, who had been out in health and safety protocols, is off the injury report. The Sixers’ defense has often been ugly as of late, whether they’re failing to get back and match up in transition or getting burned at the point of attack. Thybulle’s return, if he does play on Friday, will give the Sixers’ defense a much-needed boost — especially when it comes to keeping Dejounte Murray in check and preventing him getting into the paint too easily.
San Antonio will be playing even more shorthanded. Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell and Thaddeus Young all entered health and safety protocols on Thursday and will be out, joining Doug McDermott and Lonnie Walker IV. Walker and Devontae Cacok have been upgraded to questionable as they go through reconditioning to play.
To help provide a little extra guard depth, the Spurs have brought in recent (very brief) Sixer Tyler Johnson on a 10-day contract.
Vassell would have been one to watch in this game. He’s jumped up to averaging 11.1 points per game this season as he’s continued to polish his handle and shot creation, and averaged 17 points a night over the last three games since stepping into the starting lineup. White has been having a decent season as well, and Philly will be catching a break by avoiding his terrific defense at the point of attack. With the Spurs missing so much guard and wing depth, it’ll be far easier for the Sixers’ own depleted group of perimeter players to match up.
Dejounte Murray’s impressive play has been the highlight of the Spurs’ season so far. His passing ability and comfort attacking off the dribble has improved, and his production has soared across the board. He’s now putting up 18 points, 8.4 rebounds, 8.9 assists and 2 steals per game — all of which are career-highs. He still hasn’t found much efficiency from deep (only 33.6 percent from three on 4 attempts per game), but he is more confident with his three-pointer and mid-range pull-ups than he used to be. And as the Sixers have to continue creating from the perimeter without Maxey, Murray’s size, length and strong defense will give others like Seth Curry a headache whenever he picks them up. Watching the Murray-Maxey matchup would have been a lot of fun in this game, but so many shorthanded contests is just the nature of this season.
Embiid has been dominant since returning from COVID. Over the last 17 games, he’s averaged 29.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists to 2.7 turnovers, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks with a 61.2 true shooting percentage. When you consider how good his defense has been overall this year and his improved passing, he might be playing even better than last season right now. His main defender on Friday will be Jakob Poeltl, a quality defender and one of the NBA’s more underrated rim protectors. Embiid still has the power, mid-range game and foul-drawing tactics to produce (as he does against anyone when he’s clicking), but Poeltl is at least capable of offering more resistance than some of the bigs Embiid has burned recently.
If the Sixers bring a remotely energized defensive effort, handle Murray, and Embiid continues to roll, they should have a good shot at another win against a Spurs team that’s this depleted.
When: 7:00 pm ET, January 7, 2022
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic