For only the second time this season, the 9-8 Philadelphia 76ers hold a chance to move two games above .500. Hours removed from their admirable, surprising 115-106 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, the Sixers venture to Charlotte for a duel with the 4-14 Hornets, who have lost three consecutive games.
Philadelphia is 11th in net rating (plus-2.2), 16th in offensive rating (112.3) and sixth in defensive rating (110.1). Charlotte is 27th in net rating (minus-6.2), 30th in offensive rating (106.7) and 19th in defensive rating (113.0). Each team is missing its brightest stars. Due to a sprained left ankle, LaMelo Ball is set to miss his 16th game of the season. He initially injured it during preseason and returned Nov. 12, yet aggravated it late in Charlotte’s loss to the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 16. Cody Martin is also out after undergoing a procedure on his left knee.
As of the 12:30 p.m EST. injury report, the Sixers had not submitted an update. But it’s presumed that James Harden (right foot tendon sprain), Joel Embiid (mid-foot sprain) and Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture) are all sidelined once again. Tobias Harris turned his ankle in Tuesday’s second half, but came back into the game and said afterward he wants to play Wednesday.
With Ball unavailable for so much of the season, Charlotte has leaned heavily on the quartet of Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre Jr. and P.J. Washington to shepherd the offense. If I had to guess on the defensive assignments for those four, I’d bet Shake Milton is on Rozier, P.J. Tucker is on Hayward, De’Anthony Melton is on Oubre and Harris takes Washington, assuming the veteran swingman suits up. I’d not be surprised if Tucker and Melton’s responsibilities are swapped or fluid either.
Hayward is the best playmaker of the bunch there, but his diminished explosion has limited some of his opportunities in recent years. If the Sixers can properly send help and keep their man in front of them, they should be able to showcase why Charlotte enters this matchup last in offensive efficiency. The Hornets haven’t played since Sunday, while Philadelphia is embarking on its fourth game in seven days, so that could prove harder than envisioned.
After finishing fifth in pace last season, the Hornets are down to 17th this year. That’s a product of Ball’s absence, along with head coach Steve Clifford replacing James Borrego. Such a shift likely benefits the Sixers, who are 25th in opposing transition frequency (16.8 percent), according to Cleaning The Glass. But I’m sure you could’ve guessed this team isn’t good at preventing fast-break volume, despite being a stout defensive unit on the whole.
Whereas Brooklyn’s aversion to the rim (27th in frequency) served Philadelphia’s undersized rotation well, Charlotte lives inside (third in frequency). Paul Reed avoiding fouls (one in 31 minutes Tuesday) will be vital, given Montrezl Harrell’s limitations as an interior deterrent. Melton’s penchant for forcing turnovers may be crucial, too.
Reed is riding the wave of career-best game where he caused havoc on both ends. He cut well off the ball and displayed improved patience as a finisher out of ball-screens. His defensive playmaking and hedging were, as usual, excellent. Mason Plumlee is an ineffectual rim protector and the Hornets will often have him show or hedge on pick-and-rolls. So, there’s certainly a chance Reed thrives again; the onus will be on Harris, Melton and Shake Milton to handle those coverages properly and find the rangy big man. Harrell has struggled this season, but this could be a beneficial matchup for him as well, at least offensively.
I also like Milton, who’s established some rhythm as of late, to find success against Rozier. The former Louisville guard isn’t effective navigating screens and loves to gamble himself out of plays. The Hornets do, however, employ super sub Dennis Smith Jr., who’s developed into a feisty point-of-attack defender and instinctive off-ball playmaker. He’s averaging north of 20 minutes per game in a reserve role and I’d imagine he gets significant run in this one, spending time on both members of the Milton-Melton tandem.
Notching 24 points, six rebounds and three assists, Harris was terrific Tuesday, especially in the second half. He might encounter more resistance against Washington and Jalen McDaniels at the 4, though if Philadelphia can scheme him advantageous switches, a repeat of that bully-ball performance is reasonable.
For as long as the Harden-Embiid-Maxey trio is out, this team will likely be a carousel of inconsistency. All of my predictions could be foolish in a handful of hours. Nonetheless, they’ll aim to replicate the success of Tuesday and keep treading water without their three best players.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Charlotte Hornets
When: 7 p.m. EST
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: Spectrum Center
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic