After a brief period of positivity, we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming: the sky is falling in Sixers-land. Philadelphia is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, sliding back to fourth place in the Eastern Conference. A hard-fought loss in Phoenix to the NBA-best Suns? Perfectly acceptable. A blown fourth-quarter lead to the Bucks at home? Concerning, because the familiar backup center and rotation issues cropped up again. But Giannis is amazing and sometimes these things happen. A loss to Detroit, though, with all the main guys rested and available? Brutal.
Yet, we march on, and the Sixers return home to face a Charlotte Hornets team that hasn’t played since Wednesday, when they beat the Knicks in New York. Their next game also isn’t until Tuesday, so they’ll have no qualms about playing their key guys heavy minutes tomorrow afternoon, whereas the Sixers have to play again in Cleveland Sunday evening. Charlotte is part of the jumbled play-in group, deadlocked with Brooklyn and Atlanta at 40-37 for eighth place in the East, and two games back of Cleveland at seven.
The Hornets have been playing well, 8-2 in their last 10 games. Gordon Hayward is the only injury for them, currently out with a sprained ankle. LaMelo Ball has been terrific in year two, averaging 20.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, 7.5 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. Miles Bridges is on the short list for Most Improved Player candidates, currently leading Charlotte at 20.3 points per game. His restricted free agency is going to be very interesting this summer. Finally, Terry Rozier has proved a lot of people wrong, myself included, who thought his sign-and-trade for three years, $58 million back in 2019 would be a disaster. Rozier has averaged right around 19 points and four assists, while shooting about 39 percent from three, across his three seasons in Charlotte; the Hornets already re-upped him on a four-year extension for $96 million last August.
The Sixers have won two of the three previous meetings this season between the clubs, with Charlotte winning the most recent game back in January when Hayward made his first nine shots from the field and finished with 30 points (at least we won’t have a repeat of that this afternoon). As is the case for most opposition, the Hornets don’t have any answer for Joel Embiid, who has averaged 35.3 points across the three games versus Charlotte, including the 43-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist gem back in December.
Joel Embiid WENT OFF vs. the Hornets— NBA TV (@NBATV) December 7, 2021
7 AST pic.twitter.com/jYC638OnPY
Between Ball and James Harden, tomorrow’s game features two of the league’s best passers. As usual, we’ll be keeping a close eye on Harden’s hamstring and whether he has the burst and explosiveness to get into the lane that has seemed to come and go during his Sixers tenure.
Afternoon games can already be wonky enough as players are thrown off their usual daily ramp-up schedules. The Sixers can’t afford to be anywhere near as listless as they were Thursday night in Detroit. Ball will want to push the pace and throw those highlight-reel alley-oops to Bridges. Philadelphia will need to have crisp rotations and close out quickly on shooters like Rozier and Kelly Oubre Jr. The Hornets have a top-10 offense but bottom-10 defense, so the points will come for the Sixers, particularly by funneling through Embiid against Mason Plumless and Montrezl Harrell. But focus on the defensive end will be paramount, and likely the determining factor as to whether the Sixers can finally step back into the winner’s circle.