In the first game of James Harden’s month-long expected absence, the Philadelphia 76ers lost Friday night in New York, 106-104. While the Sixers will have to continue to learn how to adapt without the Beard in the lineup, they could receive a boost with the potential return of superstar center Joel Embiid, who has missed the last three games due to illness. Embiid participated at practice yesterday, a good sign for his availability this evening when the Sixers host the 7-2 Phoenix Suns. He and Danuel House Jr are both listed as questionable for tonight’s game; House also missed the Knicks game due to illness.
It’s a credit to the talent Phoenix has on its roster that the Suns currently sport the best record in the Western Conference, because the vibes have not been great. First, it was clear Deandre Ayton wanted to leave in the offseason, signing an offer sheet with the Indiana Pacers as a restricted free agent. The Suns matched, though, and the situation was certainly awkward back in Phoenix, but everyone at least seems to have moved on to deal with things professionally.
"Yeah, most def. I mean, we talk, man. At the end of the day, it’s like we’re trying to contribute to a win. Everything is back to normal. Nothing has changed."— Duane Rankin (@DuaneRankin) October 10, 2022
Deandre Ayton when asked if he and Monty Williams have talked
"Monty and I are talking“ #Suns https://t.co/GajEGtwpv5 pic.twitter.com/jxut8XH6gJ
The Ayton situation is certainly going better than what’s happening with Jae Crowder. The Suns and Crowder mutually agreed that he would not participate in training camp as they tried to work out a trade. No trade occurred and Crowder has been inactive all season. Then, his replacement in the starting lineup, Cam Johnson, sadly just tore his meniscus in his right knee and will undergo surgery. It’s a very tough break for a young player with a bright future — hopefully, he’s back to his former self after the surgery and recovery period.
And yet, the Suns are 7-2! Not surprising I suppose, considering Devin Booker is once again playing at an All-NBA level, averaging 27.0 points per game. The Point God, Chris Paul, is leading the league at 10.2 assists per game, and young players like Ayton and local boy Phillies superfan Mikal Bridges continue to grow within their games.
Mikal Bridges dropped 27 and was still able to see the final out of the Phillies game.— SPORTSRADIO 94WIP (@SportsRadioWIP) October 29, 2022
(He should be a Sixer.) pic.twitter.com/Qy8ygdyM0w
I’ll still never understand how these Suns lost a Game 7 at home by 33 points to the Mavericks back in May. Nevertheless, the Sixers have a tall task in front of them tonight. Even if he does play, Embiid’s conditioning can’t be great considering he was still working himself into regular season shape following his plantar fasciitis in the offseason, and now he’s coming off an illness. Even more of the burden has fallen on Tyrese Maxey with Harden out, and while he’s an absolute joy to watch and simply marvelous in his leaps and bounds of on-court development, it’s a lot to ask for a 22-year-old in his third season who is still learning the nuances of playing point guard to score 25 points per game and be the team’s lead initiator. We’ll see if the young dynamo is up for it.
Tobias Harris completed his offseason morph into a catch-and-shoot threat and has admirably filled the role this season. Does he need to be more assertive now that Harden’s out? Harris had a nice start in New York, racking up 23 points, nine rebounds, and four assists. De’Anthony Melton showed off his own playmaking chops with nine assists, but shot just 4-of-18 from the field. Hopefully, that outing was just a one-game blip for the streaky shooter, who will be needed to help slow down Booker.
The Suns are currently listed as one-point favorites, per DraftKings, and I think this ultimately comes down to Embiid’s strength in his return. If he’s unavailable or looks like the player who was going through the motions out of the gate this regular season, hard to see the Sixers topping the Suns. But if he looks more like the MVP candidate who was starting to round into form in games like the Chicago win before falling ill, the Sixers can certainly secure a victory at home.
Two championships were lost over the weekend, so the eyes of Philadelphia are now upon you, Sixers. Make us proud.