The Sixers have had their low points this season, but they’re rolling right now and have been for a while. After a perfect 5-0 West Coast road trip, they’re now 18-4 in their last 22 games and second place in the Eastern Conference at 30-16.
Following a 21-point comeback win in their latest outing in Sacramento, the Sixers are back at home to take on a fellow top team in the East: the fourth place, 29-17 Brooklyn Nets.
The Nets will still be missing their best player, though, as Kevin Durant remains out with an MCL sprain in his right knee. James Harden is set to return after having a night off against the Kings, while Joel Embiid is currently listed as questionable with left foot soreness.
There is optimism that Kevin Durant will return to action for Nets ahead of the All-Star break – and play in the All-Star Game, sources said. https://t.co/AY4OBNCV8j— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) January 24, 2023
The Nets had been surging up the East led by Durant’s excellence. From Nov. 27 to Jan. 8, just before Durant suffered his MCL sprain, the Nets’ offense was firing on all cylinders (ranking second in the NBA with a 119 offensive rating), their defense stepped up to rank fourth, and they went 18-2. Durant was ridiculous in this stretch, averaging 30.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists with shooting splits of 58.9/42.7/95.9.
Kyrie Irving has been the driving force of the Nets while Durant has been sidelined (at least over the last week, anyway). Over his last three games without Durant, Irving has exploded for 38.7 points a night, including a 48-point, 18-of-29 shooting performance in a win against the Jazz. He poured in another 38 points two days later to lead a big comeback win against the Warriors. Limiting Irving at all is obviously the main obstacle for the Sixers in this one.
Recently appointed starter De’Anthony Melton will be pivotal in trying to keep Irving in check. There’s only so much anyone can do when Irving’s jumper is on point, and he may easily give Melton some trouble when darting his way around ball screens with his shifty handles, but Melton certainly has the quickness and instincts to make this matchup an entertaining one. And when Irving inevitably breaks down defenders at the perimeter, interior rotations and Embiid’s presence at the rim have to be alert. Plus, with the ease at which Irving can pull up out of pick-and-rolls, the Sixers can’t afford to have their bigs drop too low in their coverages either.
Nic Claxton has been elevating his game recently, too. He’s played quality defense this season, using his mobility well on the perimeter as always while deterring a host of shots at the rim — he’s averaged an impressive four blocks a night over his last 12 games, taking him to a league-high average of 2.7 for the season. Along with upping his offensive production (he’s scored 20+ points in each of the last three games and is averaging a career-high 12.7 per game for the season), Claxton has played a key role in keeping the Nets more competitive in Durant’s absence.
Fortunately for the Sixers, Embiid has never had much trouble overpowering Claxton in the past to take over offensively. But if he does return to play, Embiid still can’t fall asleep against Claxton on the offensive glass to give away easy points. Not to mention, Montrezl Harrell at just 6-foot-7 could easily struggle to finish inside and stop Claxton as a roller at the other end. Repeating this usually just feels like screaming into the abyss, but this is probably a time to play Paul Reed instead.
And last but not least, the top matchup to watch that had to be mentioned eventually is, of course, Ben Simmons. Simmons clearly still has terrific defensive talent, and he’s been putting up solid rebound and assist numbers this season, but his scoring output and general aggression attacking the rim has been rather minimal. He’s only averaging 7.5 points and 1.5 free throw attempts per game for the season. Even during Durant’s latest absence when the Nets could’ve used a boost, Simmons has averaged a quiet six points per game. P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris will likely spend a lot of time guarding Simmons, so it’ll be interesting to see how much Simmons looks to attack and if he can use his size to generate any advantages.
If he’s available, it’s also going to be fun watching Embiid play against Simmons for the first time. It’s a matchup fans have wanted to see for some time now, hoping for Embiid to attack Simmons whenever they get switched onto each other, and possibly defending the paint with even more tenacity than usual if Simmons actually tries to score much himself.
This has the potential to be a highly entertaining game. One that the Sixers should have a real chance to win with Durant out, and a result they could use to keep ahead of Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference standings.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Brooklyn Nets
When: 7:30 pm ET, Wednesday, Jan. 25
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: ESPN, NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic