Following a successful 4-1 road trip, which included Joel Embiid and James Harden each missing separate games, the Philadelphia 76ers welcome the Portland Trail Blazers to town on Friday night. Whereas the Sixers just wrapped up a week away from home, Portland is in the midst of a six-game road trip. Friday marks leg five of its journey. It’s 2-2 thus far.
The Sixers, winners of three in a row, are 43-22 and third in the East, two games back of the No. 2 Boston Celtics. The Blazers have lost four of their past six contests, are 31-35 and 13th in the West. However, they remain only three games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the five seed. Philadelphia is fifth in offensive rating, ninth in defensive rating and sixth in net rating. Portland is seventh in offensive rating, 27th in defensive rating and 22nd in net rating.
On the injury front, only G League assignees, Mac McClung and Louis King, are out for the Sixers. Jaden Springer is listed as available. Anfernee Simons (right ankle sprain) is questionable. He’s missed seven of the last eight games due to a sprained right ankle. Ryan Arcidiacono (lower back soreness), Ibou Badji (left knee surgery recovery), John Butler Jr. (G League) and Justise Winslow (left ankle sprain) are all out. Jusuf Nurkic returned Wednesday following a five-week absence because of a left calf strain and is not included on Friday’s injury report.
Last time these teams dueled, the Sixers won 105-95, never trailed and built a lead as large as 26 before Portland trimmed it to seven late in the fourth quarter. Embiid gave the Blazers’ ill-equipped frontline problems all night, ending with 32 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, two assists and one steal. His co-star, Harden, diced up the defense as a pick-and-roll playmaker to tally 16 points and 14 dimes.
While Philadelphia’s defensive rotations were crisp, the Blazers were also frigid from deep and shot just 9 of 37 beyond the arc. Lillard, who’s been absolutely cooking since early January, endured a cold spell and finished with 25 points on 6-of-21 shooting. De’Anthony Melton and Matisse Thybulle helped contribute to those struggles. Melton is back to a bench role, while Thybulle is now donning Blazers red and black. I’m curious who the Sixers tab to take that assignment.
Lillard’s blend of long-range shooting and downhill driving are a challenging marriage for any defense to contain, let alone one as mercurial as Philadelphia’s lately. If Embiid plays like he did defensively in Tuesday’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, that would certainly enhance the odds the Sixers can at least prevent him from going entirely nuclear. The help rotations were connected Tuesday as well, which will be key when Lillard attacks the rim.
On the other side of the ball, Philadelphia enjoys a significant advantage. Thybulle will presumably defend Harden and that could be a fun battle. But the Blazers are small and disjointed defensively. Nurkic isn’t quick or diligent enough to bother Embiid consistently. Eubanks and Watford, Portland’s other two center choices, are far too small. Thybulle, for all his playmaking exploits, has his own issues navigating screens and staying disciplined, both of which are paramount against Harden.
Portland will throw an array of looks out there, whether it’s going to drop, trapping, showing or zone. The Sixers have grown stagnant against zone defenses at times this year, so head coach Doc Rivers staggering Harden and Embiid, which he’s done more recently, could be a minor storyline worth monitoring if they see zone. When the Blazers trapped Harden in their mid-January meeting, the Sixers’ offense got sticky. By and large, though, they’ve handled that tactic well this season.
Their depth is also an advantage. The bench of Melton, Georges Niang, Paul Reed, Jalen McDaniels and Shake Milton is superior to Shaedon Sharpe, Trendon Watford, Nassir Little and Drew Eubanks, the four Portland reserves who saw notable minutes Wednesday against Boston. I wonder if Philadelphia goes 10 deep in this one. It’s often kept the rotation at nine lately, with Milton or Niang the odd man out.
There are an array of intriguing subplots in this game and we’ll see some of them answered in a few hours when the Sixers kick off their brief two-game homestand.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Portland Trail Blazers
When: 7 pm EST, Friday, March 10
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic