Following seven days between games, the Philadelphia 76ers return from the All-Star Break to face another high-profile opponent, this time in the form of the Memphis Grizzlies. At 35-22, Memphis is second in the West and five games back of the top-seeded Denver Nuggets. Philadelphia is 38-19, third in the East and three games back of the top-seeded Boston Celtics.
The Grizzlies do, however, remain without starting center Steven Adams, who has been out since Jan. 23 because of a PCL sprain in his right knee. Luka Kennard is also out due to a non-COVID illness. Jake LaRavia, Kenneth Lofton Jr. and Ziaire Williams are all on assignment in the G League.
For the Sixers, Louis King, Mac McClung and Jaden Springer are all on a G League assignment. Right now, Joel Embiid is not listed on the injury report. He’s generally been included as questionable with left foot soreness the past few weeks or so.
Memphis enters 13th in offensive rating, second in defensive rating and third in net rating. Philadelphia is eighth in offensive rating, seventh in defensive rating and sixth in net rating. Adams’ prolonged absence is a major difference-maker, though. Over the past month, the Grizzlies are just 4-7 without him. During that span, they’re 21st in net rating, 24th offensively and 10th defensively.
Adams is the foremost offensive rebounder in the league and also provides interior size defensively that they can’t replicate elsewhere. He crushed Embiid and Philadelphia in their December meeting (16 total rebounds, 10 offensive). Jaren Jackson Jr. is a tremendous defender and arguably the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year, but he and Memphis very much miss his mate in the middle, especially on the glass.
Prior to Adams going down, the Grizzlies were second in offensive rebounding rate and 14th in defensive rebounding rate. Amid their 4-7 slide, they rank 18th in 29th in those categories. Their inability to produce second chances offensively and punctuate possessions defensively are hindering them significantly. Given Philadelphia’s own rebounding issues, Adams’ injury is quite the storyline and notably shifts the tenor of the game.
Regardless, slowing Ja Morant’s relentless slashing and the team’s collective open court proficiency remain atop the to-do list for the Sixers defensively. Memphis leads the league in transition frequency at 17.9 percent and is 12th in points per possession on the break. The Sixers, meanwhile, allow the fifth-lowest opposing transition frequency and 14th-lowest points per possession in transition. There is a sizable discrepancy in speed and vertical explosion between the teams, though, which could be problematic for the Sixers. Hustling back and promptly organizing the defense after makes and misses is paramount.
Tracking Desmond Bane’s off-ball movement in transition and the half-court is another important angle. He loves to hoist quick threes on the break and Memphis deploys him through a litany of realms off the ball in the half-court. I’m curious who gets that assignment for Philadelphia, assuming Melton wrangles with Morant.
On the other end, Memphis tends to provide aggressive nail help to wall off the paint, force turnovers and trust in its perimeter options to contest threes. Only one team in the NBA concedes a higher rate of above the break threes than the Grizzlies, which also are ninth in defensive turnover rate.
This could be a game where the likes of Melton, Tobias Harris and Georges Niang must embrace firing tons of threes. James Harden setting up Embiid in pick-and-rolls and Embiid capably handling that increased defensive attention to find teammates is similarly crucial. Embiid’s rather comfortable these days against multiple bodies at the nail, which bodes well ahead of this contest.
The Harden-Dillon Brooks matchup could be an entertaining one. Brooks is a physical and brash defender. Harden is one of the craftiest scorers of the past decade. If Harden can get Brooks into foul trouble (he’s averaging four fouls per 36 minutes this year), that’s concerning for the Grizzlies, which are low on other qualified point-of-attack defenders. But if Brooks’ feisty nature perturbs Harden, that’s concerning for the Sixers, which rely heavily on his creation juice. I’m intrigued to watch that play out.
Last time these teams met, Bane, Harden and Tyrese Maxey were all sidelined. Despite a late Sixers charge, Memphis won easily at home, 117-109. While Adams’ absence may spoil some of the fun, a duel between two of the league’s best clubs could nonetheless be an exhilarating way to snap the weeklong hiatus of games.
When: 7:30 pm EST, Thursday, Feb. 23
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic