The Sixers managed to end 2022 on a high note, cruising past the Thunder on Saturday for a 115-96 win. It snapped them out of a rough two-game slump, and now they have the chance to really bounce back against a tougher opponent on Monday.
Back in Philadelphia, the Sixers are taking on the Pelicans again after losing to them 127-116 on Friday.
Fortunately for the Sixers, the Pelicans still won't be at full strength for this rematch. Brandon Ingram remains out with a left toe contusion, rookie E.J. Liddell is out recovering from his ACL injury, and Larry Nance Jr. is out with neck spasms, so New Orleans will be missing some scoring punch and size defensively. However, their elite, rangy wing defender Herb Jones is back in action now, which will make life harder for James Harden and anyone else he spends time guarding.
For now, the Sixers’ full rotation is healthy and no one is listed on the injury report.
The Sixers' defense was terrible in New Orleans on Friday. If they don’t pick up their intensity and cohesion and play like the second-ranked defense that they are (their ranking is almost surprising when you consider how bad some of their lapses can be), it’ll be hard to win again. And there are a couple of assignments to worry about most.
One potential change that would help the Sixers' defense in this rematch is C.J. McCollum cooling off, especially from deep. He exploded for 42 points and a franchise record 11 made threes, giving the Sixers headaches all night when spotting up or shifting around ball screen. Ideally De’Anthony Melton and the Sixers' other guards (perhaps we’ll see more run from Matisse Thybulle after he had a better night against OKC) will be able to stick with McCollum a little tighter around those picks, supported by the team's bigs playing high enough to reduce his space to pull up in pick-and-roll situations.
Then, of course, the other top matchup the Sixers have to worry about is Zion Williamson. He's become a fully fledged superstar this season, averaging career-highs of 26 points, seven rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game with a ridiculous true shooting percent of 64.7. He torched the Sixers for 36 points on 13-of-19 shooting on Friday and they really didn’t have an answer for him.
Embiid has the ability to contest Williamson at the rim and more size/strength than most, but even he couldn't do much to contain some of Williamson's explosive drives when facing him one-on-one in their last game. Embiid can't be pulled from the rim and put on Zion full time either. As is the problem for every team around the league, it's a nightmare finding individual defenders to handle Williamson's freakishly unique blend of power, speed, acceleration, footwork and acrobatic finishing. Tobias Harris was probably the Sixers' best bet in the first half last time, with solid size to compete somewhat, so putting Harris on Williamson more and supporting him with more alert help and rim protection is probably the team's best hope.
From there, the Sixers need some rotational changes to help them as much as possible against this Pelicans squad — albeit changes that may never come given Doc Rivers' stubbornness with bench-heavy lineups.
For starters, no lineups featuring neither Harden or Embiid. Rivers does have Tyrese Maxey at his disposal again now, though, which at least provides more lead guard depth to help lead bench-heavy units. Maxey understandably needs some time to get up to speed after missing over a month with a fracture in his left foot, and he rested for the end of the team’s back-to-back against Oklahoma City. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see him look a bit more assertive and impactful in his second outing against the Pelicans after his nine-point, 19-minute return on Friday. Maxey just shouldn’t be forced to lead groups of four backups already when Harden or Embiid (ideally the latter) can also be played during his minutes.
Montrezl Harrell offered absolutely zero resistance against Zion as the Sixers' backup center. Paul Reed has had plenty of positive performances this season with his defensive playmaking and energy, yet he's barely played over the last three weeks. Sure he doesn't nearly have the weight or strength to deal with Zion Williamson isolations, but Reed is still a far better defender than Harrell. Reed is far quicker moving on the perimeter, offers far better backline help defense around the rim, and ultimately can't be any worse than Harrell was on Friday. Reed should be worth a try on Monday to at least show what he can do.
In addition to a possible boost from Maxey, Embiid should be primed for another strong scoring outing, too. From Jonas Valanciunas to Willy Hernangomez, no one in the Pelicans’ frontcourt could contain Embiid’s power, agility and footwork by the basket, or mid-range game. The big fella scored 37 points on 14-of-22 shooting, and the Sixers could use a similar performance on Monday if they’re going to come out on top.
The Pelicans have been impressive all around this season. Zion making a leap has helped supercharge their offense, they rank in the top eight for both offensive and defensive rating, young role players like Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado, and Dyson Daniels continue to improve, and they have the third-best net rating (+4.8) in the league. This will clearly be another difficult night for the Sixers.
Maybe if they can get any shooting regression from the Pelicans' stars, ramp up their defensive effort, Embiid keeps cooking against New Orleans' bigs, and Maxey can better elevate any minutes without Harden and/or Embiid, the Sixers can get a win this time around.
When: 7:00 pm ET, Monday Jan. 2
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic