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Sixers start road trip looking for payback against the Bulls

Is a new win streak in the works or will it be a second straight loss?

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Entering a game fresh off a loss for the first time since March 4, the 48-23 Philadelphia 76ers will hope to exact some revenge after the 34-37 Chicago Bulls’ 109-105, double overtime victory against them on Monday.

Philadelphia is fourth in net rating (plus-4.8), third in offensive rating (118.2) and seventh in defensive rating (113.4). Chicago is ninth in net rating (plus-1.2), 24th in offensive rating (113.6) and fifth in defensive rating (112.4).

On the injury side, James Harden (left achilles soreness) and P.J. Tucker (left ankle soreness) are listed as questionable. Tucker’s missed the last two games. Head coach Doc Rivers said Harden was “hurting” during Monday’s loss and that his left foot, which cost him a month earlier this season, remains a bother. For the Bulls, Lonzo Ball (left knee surgery) and Justin Lewis (right knee ACL surgery) are out. Alex Caruso (left midfoot soreness) is questionable. JaVonte Green (right knee surgery) is probable.

Following 2.5 consecutive weeks of dominant offense, which featured a 9-1 record throughout that span, the Sixers produced their fourth-worst offensive rating of the season (96.3) and worst since a Nov. 30 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers — back when Harden was still sidelined. Chicago certainly deserves credit for some of this result. It’s the league’s fifth-ranked defense, played the gaps incredibly well and executed consistent, timely rotations after doubling or bringing help at the nail.

But the Sixers were also quite loose with the ball and did not make crisp passes. Their 19.9 percent turnover rate (19 giveaways in all) was their fifth-highest rate of the season. It’d be easy to point to the 10-of-36 mark beyond the arc as a primary issue, yet that was a product of poor ball movement and stagnant possessions yielding late clock, contested triples on many occasions.

More than anything, if Harden suits up, he’ll simply have to be more engaged than he was during the fourth quarter and overtime periods on Monday for the Sixers’ offense to thrive. Whether it was the achilles soreness flaring up or Chicago’s pesky point-of-attack defense encouraging the team to look elsewhere, he was uninvolved far too often down the stretch.

He is the table-setter of Philadelphia’s elite offense. If he’s ready to play, he has to run the show. Philadelphia best quarter offensively was the third when it scored 28 points and routinely went to the Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll, as is usually the case this year. His health is priority No. 1, of course, and Monday’s lackluster offensive showing underscored his critical nature.

That star duo trimming down the turnovers (11 combined) would also be a boon. Being better prepared for Chicago’s physicality on the perimeter is another area to address collectively. The Bulls shut down various off-ball screens and extended the offense away from Philadelphia’s preferred spots much of the game.

Defensively, the Sixers continued their recent upswing on Monday, which has been aided by some games against poor offenses and includes Chicago’s 24th-ranked attack. However, the rotations were punctual in that loss and the main priority from my vantage point is how Embiid fares against Zach LaVine in pick-and-rolls. Everything else was pretty sharp. Tobias Harris, for example, excelled guarding DeMar DeRozan, who scored 25 points on 50.7 percent true shooting.

By and large, Embiid’s defense was superb, as it’s been lately. LaVine’s explosiveness did best him periodically, though, and his sixth foul came trying to contain the high-flying guard around a ball screen in the second overtime. Given how Embiid playing drop led to some troubles, I wonder if Philadelphia elects to trap LaVine, which we saw in the second half. Nikola Vucevic (21 points, 8-of-12 shooting) punished mismatches well, so that could be an issue with trapping. Nonetheless, I’m curious how the Sixers approach cleaning up some minor errors from Monday’s swarming performance, if at all. Maybe, they trust the offense to bounce back instead.

The Bulls are one of the best defenses equipped to pose some issues for Philadelphia offensively. They also could be a first-round matchup. These two-games-in-three-days miniseries are intriguing to see how coaches and players adjust. Wednesday represents that opportunity, along with the Sixers beginning their four-game road trip with a win.

Game Details

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Chicago Bulls

When: 7 p.m. EST, Wednesday, March 22

Where: United Center, Chicago, IL

Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @LibertyBallers

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