The Sixers undeniably turned some heads with a road win over the Celtics last Thursday on national television; and that win was sandwiched in between a home win against the deceptively good Nuggets and a home win against the struggling Pelicans. Of course, Philadelphia has been spoiled with the Sixers’ early-season success, and they reminded the fanbase not to take them for granted with a road KO delivered by the short-handed Brooklyn Nets.
Some inevitably overreacted to that hiccup; it’s what we do in Philadelphia. Others understand that it is simply preposterous to expect every game to have a palatable-at-worst-and-desirable-at-best outcome. There will be stinkers over an 82-game season, that’s how this sports thing works. I will live with a blowout loss on the road to the Nets when considering the context that Embiid did not play and Horford was clearly on one leg.
Sure, it left a bit of an unpleasant taste in my mouth. But, it’s a new week and we’re onto the next one.
December 18, 7 PM, Wells Fargo Center (ESPN)
Don’t fix what most certainly didn’t break. The Sixers led the Heat by as many as 41 points in Jimmy Butler’s return to Philadelphia. He was welcomed the way that only he would enjoy — with a prolific avalanche of boos courtesy of the Philadelphia faithful. Butler, in similar fashion to the previous time he had been on the court with the 76ers, missed nine more shots than he made and checked out with 11 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in the Heat’s ice-cold visit to South Philly.
It would be negligent to expect a similar game from the Heat this time around. Butler recently offered criticism (shocking, I know) of his teammates following their loss to the lowly Grizzlies in Memphis. His teammates, desperate to please their overload, are going to come into this game locked in, and Jimmy is going to do everything he can to make a statement in his second go in Philly as a South Beach resident.
Regardless of how badly Butler claims to want to win, and regardless of how “pretty good” the pieces are around him, this is on the end of the difficulty spectrum opposing brain surgery.
Minimize Passing Windows
The Heat are 2-7 when they record fewer than 26 assists in games played on the road; they picked up just 12 assists in their bludgeoning in Philadelphia on November 23rd. Switching on screens has worked very well for the Sixers as of late. Ball-handlers have been perturbed on the perimeter, with the primary option they had in mind shut down due to the window of opportunity closing as the defenders switched assignments. With the switch stunting the ability for the ball-handlers to pressure and collapse the Sixer defense, there have been fewer good looks to capitalize on after passes are made.
The Heat rely heavily on ball movement to keep pace with the championship contenders because, outside of Butler, they lack the talent to consistently break an isolated defender down and score off-the-dribble. If the Sixers find themselves on islands on the defensive side of the basketball, they should feel comfortable. If the Heat have to create offense in isolation, there will be trouble in paradise.
No Offensive Boards For Bam
The Heat rewarded Bam Adebayo with starting duties when they traded Hassan Whiteside to Portland this summer. The big man has not disappointed, posting 15 points and nearly 11 rebounds on a nightly basis. One of Bam’s underrated attributes is his ability to affect the offensive glass for the Heat.
Miami is 6-1 when Adebayo pulls down at least 4 offensive rebounds. His fearless crashing of the offensive glass creates additional opportunities for the Heat to score. At nearly 5 assists per game, Adebayo is finding shooters when opposing defenses cave to fight for the rebound or he’s chasing long rebounds and hitting cutters for finishes at the rim. For a team with a differential of just 4.9 points per game, those extra possessions that Adebayo creates are the margin of survival and death for the Heat. If the Sixers can fend off Adebayo and limit the Heat to just one possession every time down the court, they will give themselves an excellent chance to emerge victorious.
Prediction: Sixers 110, Heat 97
December 20, 8 PM, Wells Fargo Center (ESPN)
The Mavericks, short their young king, shocked the internet and the NBA at large with a road win over the Bucks to break their 18-game winning streak. That win was the latest on a very strong resume that the Mavs have built themselves in the first quarter-plus of the season, with victories against the Lakers and Rockets, just to name a few, as well.
The Sixers must understand this opponent, as generic and silly as that sounds. Dallas is 10-2 on the road this season and just 8-6 at home. They’ve proven that they’re no slouch when Luka is unavailable. If Philadelphia is not mentally prepared for this game, the horses could break out of the stable.
At 18-8, there are not very many glaring statistical holes hindering Mark Cuban’s team. Without blatant issues to exploit, one looks to the opposition’s roster for a hint, and the Mavericks have a size issue.
The Mavericks have two players over seven feet tall in Boban Marjanovic and Kristaps Porzingis. But, Marjanovic’s slow motion play makes him virtually unplayable, while Porzingis shies away from physical play. The rest of their viable big men are better suited at the power forward position instead of the center position. Porzingis, a natural power forward, could never handle Embiid despite having the height advantage, and putting Dwight Powell or Maxi Kleber on Embiid would be what basketball folks call “a mouse in the house”.
With that, the Sixers must look to establish themselves in the paint early by giving Embiid post-ups. If Rick Carlisle elects to double-team Embiid (which he almost certainly will because there’s no other way for his team to viably defend the two-time all-star), Embiid must look to build off the recent progress he has made with quick recognition of the second defender coming his way and swift passing to the open shooter or cutter.
If Embiid serves the Mavericks a balanced diet of low-post scores and diligent passes to exploit the impending double-teams, the Sixers will be in an excellent position to earn an invitation to the nightly winner’s circle.
Back To The Basics
If I could iMessage emphasize the word “basic”, I would. But, statistics are facts (in most cases), and facts do not lie. The Mavericks are 1-5 when they convert less than 42% of their field goal attempts. They are not grinding out hard-nosed, gritty wins. If it’s an “ooh” and “ahh” contest, the Mavericks are a very good team. They are a highly entertaining ball club. But, when the shots aren’t falling, they look like a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015-16. Missing Luka Doncic should, in theory, put the Mavericks in position to suffer a string of losses because the second-year superstar creates a gargantuan portion of their offense. But, the Dallas bench is fourth in scoring (44.3 points per game) and fifth in passing (9.4 assists per game) this season. So, with every player contributing, the bench can viably supplant Doncic’s production when he’s unavailable.
So, it looks like the Sixers are going to have to force Maverick misses in order to disable their offense (I know, wild, right?). To do that, they will have to get back to basic discipline on defense. That means no cheating passing lines looking for tips and steals, communication on screens, correct positioning when off of the ball, forcing the ball-handler to his off direction, staying on the ground when the shot clock is putting pressure on the Mavericks, and immediately boxing out the nearest body when the shot goes up.
Sometimes, it’s just about playing basketball the right way.
Prediction: Sixers 113, Mavericks 105
December 21, 7 PM, Wells Fargo Center (NBATV)
I smell a revenge game. In the first matchup of the season, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons combined for 15 turnovers in a disheartening loss to the Wizards in DC. I expect them to come into this game with a higher level of alertness and intensity.
The Wizards are 8-17, relying on Bradley Beal to be an MVP candidate and random role players to have anomalistic success to be competitive on any given night. As I implied previously, this game will be more about the Sixers not hurting themselves than it will be about dissecting the Wizards’ weaknesses.
Take Care Of The Basketball
As stated previously, Embiid and Simmons combined for 15 turnovers in the team’s loss in DC. Turnovers have plagued the Sixers in their losses all season long. The difference between a sloppy Sixers team and a careful, intense Sixers team is staggering–the Sixers are 17-1 this season when their opponents score fewer than 17 points off turnovers. That’s a 77-win pace. Right now, with the number of turnovers they commit per game, the Sixers are on pace for 58 wins. Taking care of the basketball, in theory, could put Brett Brown’s band in position to win nineteen more games. If the Sixers can end a higher proportion of their possessions with shots than with turnovers, they will be in line for a comfortable win. Quite honestly, the Wizards are an atrocious defensive team, so cutting down turnovers should not be difficult.
The Sixers would’ve been able to overcome their own miscues in DC had Bertans not played. He scored 22 first-half points and 25 overall, 21 of which came on three-pointers, to pace the Washington bench and keep the Sixers at arm’s length. Bertans provides spacing for the Washington offense by, in essence, putting a leash on the Sixers’ off-ball defenders. Because he must be accounted for at all times, the forward’s presence draws the help defender out of the lane to give him less breathing room; that, in turn, opens the lanes up for Bradley Beal, Ish Smith, and Moritz Wagner to attack.
In terms of the actual box score impact that Bertans has on a nightly basis, his production often makes the difference in the outcomes of their games. The Wizards are 2-8 when Bertans scores fewer than 13 points. The implication is that he’s not only failing to provide that extra bit of power off the bench, but he’s also failing to draw the defense out of the paint and, therefore, is making it harder for his teammates to score. If the Sixers neutralize the sniper, they will keep points off of the board while simultaneously making things very difficult for the Wizards on the offensive side of the ball.
Prediction: Sixers 120, Wizards 95
*All statistics found on NBA.com*