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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Suns preview with Kellan Olson

Getting a little insight about Tuesday’s opponent.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of most games, Liberty Ballers conducts a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Kellan Olson, who covers the Phoenix Suns for Arizona Sports.

Whether it be schematically, rotationally or otherwise, what’s changed for this team, compared to last year’s runner-up squad?

At the moment, due to injuries and how overly competitive this group is, head coach Monty Williams has been playing the trio of Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges extended minutes. A blowout win over the Wizards was the first break for those guys before averaging more than 38 minutes a night in their last eight games. Tuesday is the second game of a back-to-back, so peep those minute totals from Monday’s game in Chicago, as it could have a real impact on the team’s legs.

How do you think the Suns will approach the deadline? What sorts of moves/targets do you think would behoove them?

Aggressive. The reserve backcourt (more on that later) has been underwhelming and the fourth wing spot on the roster hasn’t been occupied by Abdel Nader (right knee injury management) since mid-November. Those must seem like tiny problems compared to other rosters around the league, but the Suns have a couple of salaries and picks they can use to facilitate deals to round out the edges of their depth. This is their best chance at a title in franchise history.

What’s one matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

Joel Embiid vs. Deandre Ayton. Embiid seems to get up for this one specifically. You might remember his “I play DEFENSE” tweet . Maybe he still does too, I don’t know. Anyway, Embiid’s point totals in the last four meetings are 38, 35, 42 and 33. For Ayton? Ten, 11, 18 and 17. Ayton is one of the best defensive centers in the league, but pretty much everyone looks like an everyday postal service worker trying to guard Embiid this year. So, I’m looking forward to seeing if Ayton can put up any level of resistance.

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

I wouldn’t say it’s a “surprise,” but it has been good to see Cam Johnson finally put up those elite shooting numbers we expected out of the draft. His 43.6 percent clip beyond the arc this season a top-five mark in the league after he failed to crack 40 percent his first two seasons, a common struggle for shooters out of the draft as they adapt to the NBA. He had a streak of 19 straight games in double figures this year, and the consistency has been nice to see.

Biggest disappointment of the season?

He’s sidelined, but since he’s a former Sixer, I’ll mention Landry Shamet here. He’s shooting only 37 percent from the field, and Monty Williams has made clear it’s a confidence issue more than anything. Phoenix signed him to a $43 million extension before he even played for the team, and that show of faith hasn’t worked out yet.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this one?

The one that got away, Mikal Bridges, and I don’t mean to say that to troll you. Last week, Bridges rattled off three straight games with 24+ points. The Suns’ offense is on a different level when he’s a legitimate third option. Keep an eye on his involvement early, and how much both the Suns and Bridges himself are looking for his shot.

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