The Sixers are on fire right now. They’ve won eight straight games (the longest active streak in the NBA) and are officially up to second place in the Eastern Conference at 48-22, only two wins behind the Bucks. It’s safe to say things are going pretty great in Philadelphia at the moment.
They might be able to extend their win streak to 10 before facing a few tougher opponents towards the end of the month as well. On Monday, at home, the Sixers play the first of two consecutive games against the Bulls.
After having a day off to rest against the Pacers on Saturday, James Harden looks set to return. Meanwhile, P.J. Tucker is questionable with left ankle soreness. For the Bulls, Lonzo Ball remains out after yet another setback with his left knee, Javonte Green (who’s been out since the start of January after having knee surgery) is questionable, and Alex Caruso has been added to the injury report as questionable due to left midfoot soreness.
If Tucker is sidelined, there'll likely be more pressure on Tobias Harris to handle the bigger, mid-range-focused DeMar DeRozan (which Harris has done fairly well in the past), while the Sixers' guards (with plenty of help from De'Anthony Melton off the bench) will have to cover Chicago's second-leading scorer, Zach LaVine.
The Bulls have managed to win four of their last five games, largely thanks to a bunch of huge scoring nights from LaVine and DeRozan. In a double overtime win against Minnesota on Friday, DeRozan and LaVine went off for 49 points and 39 points, respectively. At 88 points, it’s the highest total in a single game by a duo in Bulls history. It also makes them the first pair of Bulls to score at least 39 points each since Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen did back in 1996.
The Bulls are now 7-4 since the All-Star break, running a new-look starting five following the addition of Patrick Beverley. But they’re hardly still in great shape. They’re fighting to make the play-in at 10th place in the East with a 33-37 record, and rank a mere 23rd in offensive rating for the season. They still have a lot of work to do if they’re going to finish the season as well as they hope and make the playoffs.
For starters, they’ll be faced with trying to handle Joel Embiid. Over the last eight games during this win streak, he’s averaged a ridiculous 36.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, five assists, and 2.6 blocks, all while shooting 62.8 percent from the floor, 47.8 percent from three, and 84.7 percent from the free throw line on 12.3 attempts. That gives him a 72.8 percent true shooting percentage during this win streak!
As Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said at the weekend, Embiid truly is a "walking NBA cheat code right now."
Along with some of the stellar defense Embiid's played in recent games when he’s switched on, he may be in the best stretch of his career. The likes of Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond won’t offer much resistance to Embiid’s strength, agility facing up and mid-range game, so considering his form, it looks like Embiid will be in for another big outing as he continues strengthening his MVP case.
In fact, the Sixers’ offense overall has been rather unstoppable… For a while now. Embiid is a force, James Harden is orchestrating the offense beautifully and mixing in a strong level of scoring, Tyrese Maxey is back to thriving as a starter, and the team collectively shooting a league-best 43.8 percent from three in this streak only makes things better. During their current eight-game winning streak, the Sixers have recorded a lights-out offensive rating of 130 to lead the league — no one else is close in this span, with the Kings way back in second at 122. Go back even further to the middle of January (the last 29 games) and the Sixers are still first in the NBA in this span at 121.9.
After having the league’s best offense for a full two months, the Sixers are now third in offensive rating for the season at 117.4, a mere 0.1 behind Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets.
It’ll be interesting to see how the Bulls match up against Harden and Maxey, with how fiercely Caruso can defend the perimeter and Beverley, who’s been active for the Bulls since the All-Star break and has helped give them a defensive boost (he even scored 14 straight points in the Bulls’ win against Miami on Saturday, too). Despite their overall struggles, the Bulls surprisingly have the NBA’s fifth-best defense this season, and have maintained the exact same ranking post All-Star break. The play of Caruso on the perimeter in particular is a huge part of it, and, if he’s available, makes for an intriguing matchup against Harden if the smaller Beverley spends more time on Maxey.
The Sixers’ backcourt is clearly a serious handful, though, and if the Bulls send many double teams at Embiid (it’s not like they have personnel to handle him in one-on-one coverage), that could quickly create advantages for Harden and Maxey to get away from their pesky defenders and attack a more scrambled defense. Apart from watching Embiid go to work, it’s the guard play in this game that will be the main thing to focus on. And if Caruso is out due to his foot injury, that would give Harden a real advantage to get into the lane against smaller, inferior defenders.
Sure, there’s always potential for the Sixers’ intensity to drop — not even top contenders can win every winnable game. But with the way the team’s offense is clicking right now, led by Embiid absolutely dominating, it certainly looks like they have a good chance to win against this 10th-place Bulls team and extend their win streak to nine.
When: 7:00 pm EST, Monday, Mar. 20
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic