The Sixers’ first two games of the 2023-24 season have gone rather well. Sure, they’re only 1-1. But they only narrowly lost to Damian Lillard and the Bucks before picking up a comfortable 114-107 win in Toronto on Saturday. As Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey scored a super efficient 34 points each against the Raptors, the Sixers’ remaining star duo has been effectively leading the way in James Harden’s absence.
Now, to complete their first back-to-back of the season, the Sixers are back at home on Sunday to go against the new-look Trail Blazers.
The Sixers will be continuing without Harden until further notice, while the Blazers will have one significant absence due to injury. Anfernee Simons, who averaged a career-high 21.1 points per game last season, suffered a UCL tear in his right thumb in Portland’s season opener. He’s expected to be out for four to six weeks.
The Blazers shook things up more than most teams this offseason. After the eventual trading of Damian Lillard, their franchise has made a huge pivot. They acquired Deandre Ayton through the Dame deal, later sent Jrue Holiday to the Celtics in exchange for Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams III plus two first-round picks, and selected exciting prospect Scoot Henderson with the third overall pick to build around in their backcourt.
A great matchup in Sunday’s game will be seeing how Maxey and Henderson face off. Maxey’s electrifying speed, change of direction, and advanced finishing can test anyone. So even though Henderson at 6-foot-3 and second-year guard Shaedon Sharpe (6-foot-6) have a clear size advantage, they’ll have their work cut out for them trying to keep up with Maxey’s drives, creation around screens, and pull-up shooting.
Maxey has been showing off everything in his arsenal to start the season, including some fine playmaking in more of a point role. His eight turnovers with zero assists against Milwaukee was a pretty good start with Harden out the picture. The fourth-year guard settled in and improved through the game.
Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey combined for 68 POINTS in a gutsy win in Toronto— NBA (@NBA) October 29, 2023
7 3PM pic.twitter.com/ox5U4kOLKP
Against the Raptors, Maxey added seven more assists to just one turnover. He burned the defense in various ways off high screens, and shot 7-of-9 from three as he demonstrated his increasing confidence from well beyond the arc. He made racking up 34 points on 12-of-20 shooting look easy.
Henderson could present a physical challenge for Maxey with his size and terrific explosiveness when attacking the rim. The added defense the Sixers have with De’Anthony Melton in the starting lineup could be welcome for this assignment. The second unit (Patrick Beverley in particular) will also need to remain alert as the Blazers can maintain strong guard play with Brogdon coming off the bench.
There’ll be some interesting wing matchups on Sunday as well. Of course, the Sixers will have the luxury of being able to play off starting small forward (and ex teammate) Matisse Thybulle. The main test for P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris will be competing with Jerami Grant. Although, through two games, Grant has struggled — he’s shot just 9-of-26 to start the season.
Something else to watch will be what Kelly Oubre Jr. shows up? He scored 27 points on 9-of-11 shooting against the Bucks, showing off just the kind of shot-making and confidence off the bounce that the Sixers could use to give their wing rotation a boost. He followed that up with 18 points against Toronto, albeit on a far less efficient 7-of-17 shooting.
Portland presents a very different matchup for Embiid now with the departure of Jusuf Nurkic and arrival of Ayton. As is the case for most big men in the league, neither Ayton or Portland’s new backup Williams III have been very effective in handling Embiid’s power, footwork and fakes in the past. The Blazers’ rim protection has also struggled through their first two games — they’ve allowed an ugly 70.1 percent shooting mark within five feet of the basket. Some of their personnel limitations and general inexperience together should bode well for Embiid’s post play and Maxey’s drives in particular.
Meanwhile, Embiid’s interior defense was largely excellent against the Bucks in the season opener, and the Sixers could use the same again tonight.
This late block on Scottie Barnes wasn’t bad either.
With how dynamic and aggressive Henderson is attacking the rim, and Ayton doing the vast majority of his damage around the basket, Embiid and the Sixers bringing timely interior rotations would go a long way to containing Portland’s top talent.
The Blazers have some intriguing young players to work with and an extra night’s rest on their side. The Sixers clearly have the advantage in terms of top-end talent, but this matchup could be a fun one.
When: 7:30 pm EST
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic