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Sixers’ road trip continues Friday in Charlotte

Philadelphia is eyeing a seventh straight win.

Charlotte Hornets v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

After clinching the season series against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers will look to do the same Friday when they clash with the Charlotte Hornets inside Spectrum Center.

Charlotte won the first game between these teams on Nov. 23 when none of Joel Embiid, James Harden, Tyrese Maxey or LaMelo Ball suited up. Three weeks later, Philadelphia exacted revenge on Dec. 11. Harden and Embiid were back in the fold, and Embiid tallied 53 points on 71.9 percent true shooting.

The Sixers enter this contest amid a six-game winning streak. They’re third in the East at 46-22, a game behind the No. 2 Boston Celtics and three games back of the Milwaukee Bucks. The Hornets are 22-49 and 14th in the East. They rank 26th in net rating (minus-6.0), 30th in offensive rating (109.6) and 21st in defensive rating (115.5). Since Feb. 13, a 13-game stretch over which Charlotte is 7-6, it’s third in defensive rating (111.1). Defensive-minded head coach Steve Clifford is helping his team establish an identity. On the year, Philadelphia is fifth in net rating (plus-4.4), third in offensive rating (118.2) and 10th in defensive rating (113.8).

Ball (right ankle surgery), Cody Martin (left knee soreness) and Mark Williams (right thumb sprain) are all out for the Hornets. James Bouknight and Theo Maledon are on G League assignment. Jalen McDaniels is listed as questionable, but Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported he is out for a second consecutive game. Mac McClug and Louis King are with the Delaware Blue Coats.

After dealing Mason Plumlee at the trade deadline, Charlotte is pretty small and inexperienced inside. Williams had put together some nice stretches lately and his absence only furthers its shortcomings on the frontline. In the Hornets’ last game, Nick Richards, JT Thor, P.J. Washington and Kai Jones served as their primary bigs. I’m skeptical any are well-equipped to wrangle with Embiid, who’s playing his best basketball of the season right now and has that 53-point performance against Charlotte earlier this year in his back pocket.

Dennis Smith Jr. has seen an uptick in playing time since Ball exited the lineup and he’s a rather feisty point-of-attack defender. Averaging two steals per 36 minutes, he navigates screens fluidly, hunts chances in the passing lanes and touts slippery hands. Harden’s craft and size should be advantages against Smith, but that could still be a fun matchup.

Despite their recent upswing defensively, the Hornets’ offense remains stuck in the mud. During their 7-6 run, they’re still just 29th in offensive rating. It’s even worse since Ball was ruled out for the year. In the eight ensuing games since his injury, they’re last in offensive rating by more than three points per 100 possessions.

There’s a dearth of passing talent and the lack of a true primary initiator bogs down the offense. Players like Washington, Kelly Oubre Jr., Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier are all rather talented offensively, but none are the engine of a capable offense. That leads to stagnant possessions where their responsibilities are overextended.

Philadelphia’s defense has struggled lately. This could be a chance to build some momentum. Or, it could allow them to exacerbate some of their poor habits such as scattered transition defense, miscommunications on the weakside and low-hand closeouts against credible shooters. We’ll know soon enough, as well as whether the Sixers can push a winning streak to seven games for the third time this season.

Game Details

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Charlotte Hornets

When: 7 p.m. EST

Where: Spectrum Center, Charlotte, NC

Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @LibertyBallers

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