Another day, another disappointing Sixers loss. After a poor 116-111 defeat to the Wizards, the Sixers fell short again on Saturday night. With more ugly defense, horribly weird and bench-heavy lineups from Doc Rivers, and scorching performances from Zion Williamson (36 points on an easy 13-of-19 shooting) and C.J. McCollum (42 points with 11 made threes) to lead the way for the opposition, the Sixers fell to the Pelicans on Friday, 127-116.
Now to finish their back-to-back and bring 2022 to a close, the Sixers are facing the Thunder, who’ve surprised many people with their competitiveness this season at 15-20. They’ve been getting solid results recently too, winning four of their last six games including victories against Memphis (when Shai Gilgeous-Alexander wasn’t even active) and Portland (twice).
In addition to top rookie Chet Holmgren who remains out after undergoing foot surgery, two more injuries will make the Thunder’s frontcourt even more depleted as they attempt to handle Joel Embiid. Aleksej Pokusevski suffered a non-displaced tibial plateau fracture in his left leg earlier this week and will be out for at least six to eight weeks. He’d been playing with more control and efficiency this season, starting nearly every game over the last two months. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is also out with a right foot sprain. Not that the two young, more slender bigs would have done too much to help against the brute force and skill of Embiid.
Embiid is fully dominating on offense right now. His absolute tear over the last month has seen him average 37 points per game through December, including a 44-point outing (against the Clippers) and a 48-point outing (against the Wizards) in his last five games. He’s in MVP-contending form, and leading the league in scoring with a career-high 33.8 points a night. The Thunder’s frontcourt, likely featuring more of 6-foot-8 Darius Bazley and former Sixer Mike Muscala in Poku’s absence, simply doesn’t have big men with enough size or strength to bother Embiid. This should be another chance for the big fella to lead the way, and give the Sixers a major advantage against the Thunder’s ninth-ranked defense.
The biggest test for the Sixers in this one is containing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. OKC’s star has been sensational this season. He’s averaging a huge new career-high of 31.4 points per game while boasting lights-out shooting splits of 50.5/35.1/92 for a 62.1 true shooting percentage. His terrific footwork and craftiness to get to the rim, comfort creating shots off the bounce, and free throw rate (10.2 attempts per game) are all better than ever.
As for the Sixers’ starting guards, it’s going to be hard for James Harden to keep up or for Tyrese Maxey to bother SGA much, especially with the latter’s size advantage over Maxey at 6-foot-6. De’Anthony Melton will be needed to fill a large role in this matchup with his screen navigation and on-ball ability, supported by alert rotations to contest at the rim by Embiid as Gilgeous-Alexander inevitably makes frequent drives to the hoop.
Despite the Thunder’s host of young talent highlighted by the likes of Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey’s overall savvy and impressive passing chops, and the craft of rookie Jalen Williams who’s already delivering as a starter, the Thunder still rank just 23rd in offensive rating this season. They attempt more shots in the restricted area than any other team (a lot of that is thanks to the driving power of SGA), but rank dead last in efficiency there at 62.3 percent. Their shooting from distance hasn’t been too hot either, ranking 18th in three-point percentage.
The Sixers’ tendency for slow starts and waves of lacklustre defense has been hurting them again this week, and while that could easily happen again against OKC, they at least aren’t being tested against an offensive juggernaut here.
How OKC looks to guard Harden and Maxey will be interesting to monitor. SGA’s defensive engagement and impact has improved this season, but hanging with Maxey’s drives when he hurtles downhill at full speed is tough for anyone — even as he gets back to form after returning from injury. Meanwhile, whether the Thunder opt to throw Lu Dort at Harden much will be something else to keep an eye on. Dort certainly has the strength and foot speed to be a better defender against Harden, while the 6-foot-8 Giddey could shift up to defend a far lesser offensive threat like P.J. Tucker.
Equally, the Sixers’ forwards like Tobias Harris and Tucker will likely be their best bets at defending the size of Giddey attacking the paint.
The Thunder are scrappy and Gilgeous-Alexander in particular is a threat to take over on any given night. The Sixers could seriously use a more consistent defensive effort and more logical rotations from Doc Rivers — you know, maybe keep one of Harden or Embiid on the floor at all times, especially as Maxey has only just returned from over a month off with injury. As we know with this team and these coaching decisions, though, that’s often easier said than done…
Let’s see if Philly can get back to its recent winning ways and end the year on a high. Even if better coaching, bench play and overall team defense don’t show up, maybe at least some offensive magic from Harden and/or Embiid will be enough to get them there against this Thunder squad.
Update: It looks like the Sixers will be putting more emphasis on load management for this matchup now. Maxey is out to ease him back into his return, while Harden and Tucker are both now listed as questionable with injury management.
When: 8:00 pm ET, Saturday Dec. 31
Where: Paycom Center, Oklahoma City, OK
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic