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Sixers face off against Zion Williamson and scorching Pelicans

This will be a big test for the Sixers.

Philadelphia 76ers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Zion Williamson is healthy and back, coming off a career-high 43-point performance against the Minnesota Timberwolves. A four-game win streak has catapulted the Pelicans to first in the top-heavy Western Conference, where they are tied with the Denver Nuggets. A loss would drop them to the second seed, while a win would solidify their first place spot.

Williamson gets the majority of the spotlight; and for good reason. He’s a 280+ pound human highlight reel that nobody in the NBA can truly match up against. He’s come as advertised this season, averaging nearly 26 points per game on 60 percent shooting from the field. Focusing on just Zion, however, doesn’t provide enough insight into just how good the Pelicans are.

Last deadline, they swung a blockbuster deal for C.J. McCollum, who has fit like a glove since his arrival. Herb Jones has excelled in a 3-and-D role, averaging two stocks per game in 28.4 minutes. Brandon Ingram is capable of scoring on all three levels, and has been an excellent option alongside Zion. Jonas Valančiūnas numbers are down from his usual, but he’s always capable of scoring in bursts around the post or even hitting five threes every now and then.

You’ll find young talent outside of their starting five, starting with Trey Murphy, who has stepped up mightily while Ingram has battled injury. Non-Philadelphia Phillie Jose Alvarado is as scrappy as they come, and gives off huge T.J. McConnell vibes. Players such as Kira Lewis, Dyson Daniels and Jaxson Hayes are all intriguing prospects looking to solidify their role in the league.

The Pelicans are deep and have talent that can play on both ends of the floor. Currently, they sit at sixth in offensive and defensive rating. Their plethora of offensive options will make it difficult to keep pace — especially if the ball begins to stick in the Sixers’ offense.

The Sixers are coming off a stinker against the Washington Wizards. They’ve had this weird trend where they look asleep for the first quarter and try to catch up in the second and third quarters. A big key in this game will be coming out aggressive, as a lackadaisical effort will find them down early against a tough opponent.

Fortunately, tonight’s game looks to be the return of the beloved Tyrese Maxey — who will likely come off the bench and be on a minute restriction. He’ll provide the team with a much-needed scoring boost. The burden for James Harden and Joel Embiid has been mighty in the past few weeks.

Embiid, in particular, is finally climbing up the MVP ladder. His month of December has been insane, averaging 37 points per game on 54 percent shooting. Both Embiid and Harden have been averaging north of 37 minutes per game during this month, so hopefully Maxey’s return will allow playing time to decrease for both.

How the Sixers choose to match up will be fascinating to see. On paper, Tobias Harris on Zion and Embiid on Valančiūnas makes sense. But will the Sixers opt to put Embiid on Williamson? That’s something I’d personally like to see.

The December Sixers have been solid, and their team stats have trended in the right direction. Their offense has slowly climbed to 14th in the NBA, while their defense remains excellent, ranking second only to Cleveland.

The Sixers listed Maxey as probable ahead of this matchup. The only other Sixers currently listed on the injury report are G League assignments. P.J. Tucker, who has one good hand, isn’t mentioned anywhere. The Pelicans injury report has a few key names mentioned. Herb Jones is questionable with conditioning, Larry Nance Jr. is doubtful with neck spasms and Brandon Ingram is out.

This back-to-back against the Pelicans and Thunder is one of their hardest on the season and managing a split at minimum would be huge. Their schedule beyond that gets much lighter, and it would put them in good standing for the months to come. Let’s see if the Sixers can slow down one of the hottest teams in the league.

Game Info

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. New Orleans Pelicans

When: December 30th, 8:30 PM EST

Where: Smoothie King Center, New Orleans LA

Watch: NBC Sports Philly

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @LibertyBallers

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