There are still a couple of games left in the Sixers' current road trip, but they're guaranteed to be heading home with a statement win now. On Saturday night, they came back from an 18-point deficit late in the third quarter to claim a 133-130 victory against the East-leading Bucks, who were riding high on a 16-game win streak.
On Monday, the Sixers begin another road back-to-back against a team from much further down the Eastern Conference rankings, taking on the 11th place, 29-36 Pacers.
The Pacers have been struggling for wins even more recently, too. Tyrese Haliburton missing two weeks (10 games) in January hurt them, helping them slide to a 6-18 record since Jan. 11 and a 28th-ranked net rating of -7.0 in this span. But even since Haliburton’s return on Feb. 2, they’ve gone 5-8 with a -4.2 net rating, as they continue to struggle with their defense (ranked 26th in this stretch).
The Sixers could be shorthanded on Monday. Both Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker left the Bucks game early due to injury — Harris left in the second quarter with left calf soreness, and Tucker left in the third quarter due to back spasms. After the game, Doc Rivers didn't sound too optimistic about their chances to play against the Pacers. They’re both now officially listed as questionable. It sounds like we can probably expect more minutes from Jalen McDaniels and Danuel House Jr., who did have some positive moments against the Heat last week despite playing so few minutes overall during the last couple of months.
At least one positive for the Sixers, if they’re missing some of their forward rotation, is that Haliburton is responsible for anchoring the Pacers’ offense, so De’Anthony Melton and the starting backcourt will still be available to switch around against Indiana’s top threat. Haliburton is especially shooting lights out from deep this season, making even more shots off the bounce with a career-high 2.8 made threes per game at a 39.8 percent clip. How well the Sixers’ guards stick with Haliburton as he looks for space to pull up around ball screens and get into the lane to kick out passes will be the key matchup to watch.
The Sixers’ last game against the Pacers on Jan. 4 was a narrow 129-126 overtime win, but Joel Embiid was out and neither James Harden (8-of-20 shooting) or Tyrese Maxey (6-of-16 shooting) shot particularly well. If their stars are available and more like their usual offensive selves, Philly should really have the firepower to turn the tide more in their favor this time.
Even with a couple of potential absences due to injury, the Sixers (particularly their stars) are entering this game in strong shape considering the level of opponent. Harden and Embiid couldn’t be in better form right now. The Beard exploded for his most points as a Sixer yet with 38 against Milwaukee, including 19 in the fourth quarter and 10 total assists on the night as he picked apart the Bucks’ defense off the dribble and as a passer. Embiid dropped 31 points and an impressive 10 assists as his dominance continues.
Against a Pacers team that ranks 23rd in defensive rating, doesn’t have great guard defenders to cover both Harden and Maxey, or a frontcourt to physically challenge Embiid with bigs like Myles Turner, Jalen Smith and Isaiah Jackson, the Sixers have some favorable matchups.
Credit needs to go to Turner for his recent play, though. Over his last 20 games, he’s averaged 20.6 points and 2.6 blocks per game while making 42.7 percent of his threes, boosted by a lights-out 40-point night against Boston on Feb. 23 when he hit eight triples. He’s shooting a career-high 40 percent from deep for the season, too. Turner is hardly a gunner with an average of only 4.2 three-point attempts per game, but Embiid and Paul Reed (shoutout to BBall Paul for another quality performance against Milwaukee) will still need to be wary of his three-point threat and remain energetic when dropping back to the rim after sticking with Turner when he’s spacing in pick-and-pop situations. He and Haliburton are quite the active pick-and-roll duo.
Another encouraging trend from the last four games is that Maxey has exploded back into form. Over these last four outings, playing one off the bench against Miami before rejoining the starting lineup, Maxey has returned to his aggressive, efficient self. He’s flying to the rim and making his typical acrobatic finishes while firing on all cylinders off the dribble from three. He’s always been most comfortable attacking in more of a sidekick role alongside Harden and Embiid, and has now averaged 26.3 points on 57.6/54.2/94.1 shooting splits over his last four games. If Maxey keeps cooking like this, it’s far easier for the Sixers to comfortably handle opponents like the Pacers on Monday night, and generally reach their potential as the playoffs approach.
The Sixers also have the benefit of the Pacers being on the second night of a back-to-back — Indiana is coming straight off a 125-122 win against the Bulls on Sunday.
If the Sixers can stay focused and any of their stars come close to resembling their play against Milwaukee, this contest should be a good opportunity to secure another win before completing this back-to-back against Minnesota and dealing with a few more tough opponents (like Cleveland, Phoenix and Denver) before the end of the month.
When: 7:00 pm EST, Monday, Mar. 6
Where: Gainbridge Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic