The Sixers just keep riding high. On Wednesday they picked up another impressive win, taking down the Celtics 106-103. The end of the fourth quarter wasn't pretty, but the Sixers played more excellent defense and had 27 points from Joel Embiid and 25 from Tyrese Maxey to lead the way offensively.
On Friday, the Sixers have their first game of the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament as part of East Group A (you can read more here if you need a reminder of how it all works). They’ll be on the road to take on the 2-7, 15th-place Pistons, now led by new head coach Monty Williams.
Detroit are dealing with a host of injury issues to start the year. Bojan Bogdanovic (right calf strain), Alec Burks (left forearm contusion), Joe Harris (right shoulder sprain), Isaiah Livers (left ankle sprain) and Monte Morris (right quadriceps strain) are all listed as out. Talented sophomore Jaden Ivey hasn’t been given many minutes this season either, and is currently out due to illness as well.
The Sixers’ rotation is clear from an injury report standpoint, except for Nicolas Batum being listed as probable with the right finger sprain he picked up against Boston.
The Pistons are coming off a narrow loss to the Bucks, helped by Giannis Antetokounmpo's ejection after 22 minutes. Detroit fought well and were led by Cade Cunningham's 33 points and a hot-shooting performance by rookie Marcus Sasser off the bench for 26 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Sasser has scored 19+ points in three of the last four games, and could continue to give the Pistons an offensive boost off the bench while they’re shorthanded.
Cunningham, with his versatile scoring, vision, and high-IQ playmaking, is the hardest assignment for the Sixers’ defense to handle in this one. And after he missed all but 12 games last season due to undergoing surgery for a stress fracture in his left leg, and didn’t play a game against Philly, he’ll be a new lead creator to figure out.
Even though it should understandably take Cunningham some time to reach his A game this season, he's still averaging 24.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game.
Efficiency and ball security is where he's struggled so far. Obviously this is all on a tiny sample of nine games, but he's only shooting 45.8 percent on two-pointers and 32.8 percent from three. He’s also averaging an awfully high 5.4 turnovers per game. Part of it’s due to some carelessness on his part and forcing a few plays, but he also doesn’t have much offensive help or spacing to work with right now. Especially while the Pistons are depleted.
The Pistons' offense ranks just 19th so far. The current starting lineup with two bigs in Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren, along with the poor shooting of Killian Hayes, is hardly ideal for space.
Nevertheless, at 6-foot-6, Cunningham is a tricky cover and puts De’Anthony Melton at a size disadvantage. Of course, Melton can guard up with his reach. But if the Sixers want to mix things up, they have a new bevy of wing options like Kelly Oubre Jr. (who’s been pretty solid on defense this season) and Batum (a defender who can capably switch across guards and forwards) to throw at Cunningham.
Duren is another key player to watch in this game. He’s been thriving this season, playing more minutes (29.7 per game) as a starter and significantly upping his production. Duren’s averaging 13.9 points on 63.8 percent shooting, 11.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 blocks per game, all while showcasing his growing skill, too.
He’s demonstrating how well he can handle for a big when driving and facing up. It makes him particularly effective against slower bigs when partnered with his explosiveness and 6-foot-10 frame. Embiid obviously has the size and strength to contain Duren inside, but he should be alert and ready to cover Duren’s quick dives and cuts to rim. Duren’s size, strength and bounce will make him a harder physical matchup for the Sixers’ forwards when switched onto him as well.
The Sixers should keep an eye out for Ausar Thompson on the glass, too. The 6-foot-7 rookie wing has been starting and as well as showing off his athleticism and defensive ability (averaging an impressive 1.3 steals and 1.8 blocks per game), he’s also rebounding at an absurd rate. In 31.8 minutes per game, he’s averaging 9.7 rebounds, with 4.1 being offensive rebounds. Seriously. He’s second in the NBA in total offensive boards with 37 through only nine games — as a 6-foot-7 rookie wing. He’s a pretty unique talent.
Overall, the Sixers should clearly the advantage in this game. Their fifth-ranked defense has looked noticeably improved under Nick Nurse and they haven’t even had much time to hone all their schemes yet. And with Maxey, Embiid and most of their supporting cast stepping up on offense as well right now, the Sixers should be able to extend their win streak to seven on Friday.
What a turnaround for the vibes to be this good after the offseason slog we went through.
When: 7:00 pm EST
Where: Little Caesars Arena, Detroit, MI
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic