The Sixers’ latest back-to-back, with James Harden out to manage his hamstring, went just about as you’d expect, as they lost 99-82 to the No. 1 seed Heat. As the Heat threw constant aggressive help at Joel Embiid and his teammates struggled to get him the ball or warm up from three, the Sixers never fully recovered from a horrible offensive start. They caught up in the third quarter with far better defense and some zone coverage to throw off Miami, and deserve some credit for hanging around in most of the second half. But ultimately, they just couldn’t overcome their 34.1 percent shooting, including a 7-of-41 mark from deep.
On Monday, the Sixers will be aiming to bounce back against the 39-25 Chicago Bulls, who have been in a bit of a slump lately with a four-game losing streak.
The Bulls are heavily depleted due to injuries right now. Lonzo Ball (left knee meniscus tear), Alex Caruso (right wrist fracture), and Patrick Williams (left wrist ligament tear) all remain out. Nikola Vucevic is also questionable with a right hamstring strain. The only Sixers on the injury report are players with the Blue Coats: Charles Bassey, Charlie Brown Jr., Myles Powell and Jaden Springer.
The absence of Ball and Caruso has hurt the Bulls a lot this season. Both players have been out since mid January, which has not only diminished the Bulls’ complementary ball-handling and playmaking but a perimeter defense that had significantly improved thanks to their impact. After the Bulls’ ranked 10th in defensive rating through 33 games before the start of January, they’ve ranked just 25th in their last 31 games since the start of 2022. On Monday night, this is going to give Tyrese Maxey and Harden a huge advantage to beat opponents off ball screens and get to the rim.
Rookie Ayo Dosunmu has stepped up admirably season. He moved into a starting role in January and has given the Bulls a lift at both ends of the floor, from his strong on-ball defense to his passing. He’ll have his work cut out for him against Maxey and Harden, though.
Even without Ball and Caruso, the Bulls have picked up wins with their fourth-ranked offense leading the way. The main test for the Sixers in this contest will obviously be trying to slow down Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan, with the latter in particular having a sensational season. DeRozan is averaging a team and career-high 28.1 points (good enough for fourth in the NBA) with a 59.4 true shooting percentage to go along with 5.1 assists, and has well and truly earned All-NBA First Team consideration.
Matisse Thybulle has done an excellent job guarding LaVine in the past, with the quickness and length to bother LaVine around ball screens at the arc and drives to the rim. It wouldn’t be surprising for the Sixers to keep this matchup, and perhaps try to contest DeRozan’s elite, mid-range-heavy attack with a bit more size with their other wings and Tobias Harris.
The Sixers’ massively upgraded pick-and-roll attack with Harden should be able to stand out again vs. the Bulls. Besides Embiid just being able to best Vucevic with post-ups and face-ups if the Bulls’ big man plays, the Sixers can bring Vucevic farther from the basket and force him to defend more in space. Given Vucevic’s limited lateral quickness, this will be another way for Philly to get an upper hand in this matchup.
Trying to slow down LaVine and DeRozan is always tough. But if Thybulle sticks with LaVine as well as he has done before, Embiid ramps up after a drop in defensive activity against Miami, and Harden fires up the offense as he did through his first four games, the Sixers should have a good shot to beat the shorthanded Bulls.
When: 7:00 pm ET, Mar. 7, 2022
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic