The Sixers have had some tough games lately. They’ve picked up recent wins against teams like Chicago, Dallas and Miami, before losing their last two competitive outings against the league-best Suns and 2-seed Bucks.
There are positives from the Sixers’ latest defeat against Milwaukee, though. Joel Embiid tallied 29 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, Danny Green and Shake Milton gave some good minutes off the bench, and James Harden looked more spry on his drives and had his step-back three working to score 32 points on only 17 shots with nine assists.
Now, as the Sixers continue pushing for the top seed in the East and hone their chemistry before the playoffs, they have a far easier schedule to close the regular season. To get things started on Thursday night, the Sixers will be heading back on the road to face the Pistons, who now sit at 20-56 and 14th place in the Eastern Conference.
The only Sixers on the latest injury report are Charles Bassey, Myles Powell and Jaden Springer on assignment with the Blue Coats. The big absence for the Pistons is Jerami Grant, who has missed the last two games and is out for the remainder of the season with a left calf strain. Cory Joseph (right lumbar spine strain) is also questionable.
The Pistons have gone 2-9 in their last 11 games, and now rank just 28th in offensive rating and 24th in defensive rating for the season. One recent positive for Detroit, though, has been the play of Marvin Bagley III, who’s performed pretty well since being traded to the team in February. He’s stepped into the starting lineup the last two games since Grant has been sidelined, and dropped 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting against New York on Sunday.
First and foremost, of course, Cade Cunningham has been the Pistons’ bright spot this season. He’s really started coming into his own as the season has developed, showcasing the impressive mix of three-level scoring, poise, and sharp playmaking that helped make him such an exciting prospect as the top pick in last year’s draft. And over his last 15 games, he’s averaged 22.5 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game, shooting 47.6 percent overall and 32.4 percent from three on 4.9 attempts. At a sturdy 6-foot-6 with his ability off the dribble, changes of pace and craft as a driver, Cunningham is a difficult cover. Matisse Thybulle should see plenty of time guarding the Pistons’ top man, and give us what should be one of the most entertaining matchups to follow in this game.
At the other end of the floor, it will be interesting to see how Cunningham fares against Harden. The rookie has great physical tools on defense, but will Harden be able to find success with his footwork and foul-drawing? Harden building on such a strong performance against Milwaukee on Tuesday would obviously be a fantastic development for the Sixers to end the regular season.
Tyrese Maxey has had two highly efficient games against the Pistons this season, averaging 18 points on 70 percent shooting with 5.5 assists. If he can replicate that play against the Pistons’ limited perimeter defense and continue flying to the rim, that will go a long way to energizing the Sixers.
Embiid has only shot 14-of-34 in his two games against Detroit, but he doesn’t exactly have a bad matchup against bigs like the more slender Bagley, the 6-foot-8 Isaiah Stewart, and Kelly Olynyk. With the regular season nearing its end, perhaps we’ll see an extra-motivated Embiid assert himself for a big scoring night as he wraps up his MVP push.
The Sixers have won both their games against the Pistons this season — 110-102 on Oct. 28, and 109-98 on Nov. 4. Barring any ice-cold shooting woes, completely useless effort, or an outlier scorching performance by the Pistons’ offense, Philly should be able to grab another win tonight.
After facing the Pistons, the Sixers then have games against Charlotte, Cleveland, Indiana (twice), Toronto, and Detroit again to end the season. Overall, this run should give the Sixers a good chance to end the season on a roll and improve their shot to grab the second or first seed.