Seven Days of Sixers: The Wild, Wild West

Oh, what a week it was for those Sixers. The whole point of this weekly column is to guide the reader through the week ahead for the Sixers and to forecast how games may play out. But I could never have forecasted what happened this week. It started with game-winning free throws from Embiid, recessed with an Embiid-Towns wrestling match that ended in 2-game suspensions for both players, and came to an end with a game-winning three-pointer from (*drum roll*) Furkan Korkmaz(!?). #PhilaUnite went 3-0 on the week, improving to 5-0 overall. The Sixers are the last undefeated team remaining. Could this be the week? Well, let’s look at who’s in their way.

Phoenix Suns

November 4, 9 PM, Talking Stick Resort Arena (NBCS Philly)

Devin Booker might be used to the heat of Arizona, but he loves playing teams from the Northeast. His career-high of 70 points came against the Celtics in TD Garden during the 2016-17 season, and shocked the Sixers for 46 in Philly the next season. Booker is one of the most lethal scorers in the NBA and, for the love of God, do not let him get hot. 

In their first year under head coach Monty Williams, the Suns are out to an impressive 4-2 start. It’s early, and reality will likely bring them down to earth, but they’re not a team to sleep on anymore. Ricky Rubio gives the Suns their first dosage of a legitimate point guard in years, Kelly Oubre has taken a step forward, Aron Baynes has been a revelation, and Booker is doing what Booker does. So, let’s look at how to cool down the galaxy’s hottest celestial body.

Devin Booker

Brett Brown opted to switch and go over screens for large portions of Saturday’s game against the Blazers. CJ McCollum was rowdy, but Damian Lillard was an absolute monster when given any space at all. Booker is similar in that he can reach the “cheat code” level of the hot meter when given any space. You also can’t leave him on an island with a primary defender. So, switching could prove fatal. A moderate hedge would make a lot of sense. Thwarting off Booker from turning the corner will prevent the defense from collapsing and, thus, will make it harder for Oubre, Bridges, Cam and Tyler Johnson, and others to heat up. By the way, the Suns are 4-0 when they rack up at least 26 assists, so the more you allow your defense to collapse and leave shooters open, the more they will feast.

While Booker is a lethal shooter in space, he isn’t quite as refined yet when shooting in space on-the-move. Don’t get me wrong, he will torch your defense if you take too long to get around screens. But, going over screens once in a while will make him rush, and misses will result. 

Defensive Glass

Aron Baynes has been a gamer for the Suns, expanding his toolkit into a pick-and-pop threat while retaining his junkyard dog role. He is averaging 2 offensive rebounds per game and just under 6 boards overall. While the Sixers need to account for Baynes (15 points per game thus far), they need to make sure to remember the fundamental rule of boxing out. Good three-point shooting teams salivate when they come down with an offensive board because their shooters are locked and loaded, waiting for the kick-out for an open second chance triple. Baynes will try to create such opportunities by spiking tip-backs for his guards to retrieve, or he’ll get the inside advantage and sling the rock out to a shooter.

Whether it’s Baynes or someone else, the Sixers can make their lives much easier by blocking out and limiting the number of second chance opportunities the Suns get. Further, in the Sixers’ two double-digit wins this season, they’ve secured at least 40 defensive rebounds. In the three games that they had to come back to win, they secured 37 or fewer defensive boards.

Prediction: Sixers 115, Suns 107

Utah Jazz

November 6, 9 PM, Vivint Smart Home Arena (NBCS Philly)

The Jazz are undefeated at home; the Sixers have two excellent road wins without Embiid and are undefeated, period. The Jazz have stars who are wild cards; the Sixers have stars who are wild cards between either being dominant or just pretty good. Joel Embiid is returning, so he’ll be looking to make a statement. Donovan Mitchell is just looking to beat Philly for the first time in his career.

The Sixers typically play very well against the Jazz, beating them in each of their last four matchups. The Kenny-Gs are deeper than in previous years, and you never quite know what you’re getting from the Sixers’ bench, so I give that advantage to Quin Snyder’s team. But, outside of depth and home court advantage, this matchup favors the Sixers. So, this is how you give Utah a flat note.

Deny Mike Conley the Ball

The last thing you want to do is have to choose between defending Conley and Mitchell. Conley will inevitably make shots, but the Sixers must prevent him from heating up. If they’re having a tough time handling him, Mitchell is going to benefit from open looks. Once Mitchell gets going, it’ll open things up for his lefty counterpart. If that happens, look out. By denying Mike Conley the ball so that he’s only receiving catch-and-shoot looks, the Sixers are putting the ball in Donovan Mitchell’s hands and, thus, are controlling the pace and the way the Jazz run their offense.

Keep Mitchell in Front of You

The Louisville product is extremely hit-or-miss. He can explode and be a superstar on any given night, but he also has his share of clunkers. The key to stopping Mitchell is simply not allowing him to get around his primary defender. He’s not consistent enough to definitively cross out any defensive strategy — switch, hedge, go under, go over. Go with whatever is working. The more you are able to keep Mitchell in front of you, the more you control his shot selection. “Spida” struggles when he can’t get to whatever his bread-and-butter is on any given night.

This game is weird because I can’t get a feel for it. The Sixers should win, but I think it’s going to be a stressful last five minutes. Ultimately, I have a feeling things will go Utah’s way.

Prediction: Jazz 104, Sixers 98

Denver Nuggets

November 8, 9 PM, Pepsi Center (NBCS Philly)

Nothing like a Friday night showdown between the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Incredible Hulk. Nikola Jokic earned All-NBA First Team honors over Embiid last season. With that accolade and his dynamic passing game, some people are actually entertaining the argument that Jokic is better than Embiid. It’s an interesting discussion. Jokic may be a flashy passer, but ask yourself who the more unstoppable player is. When it’s phrased that way, it’s hard to make the argument for the Mile High big man. 

Looking past Jokic, this is a very intriguing matchup for Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson. Although his jumper has not reached marksman territory yet, Jamal Murray is one of the best young point guards in the NBA. His speed, vision, passing, and scoring prowess makes him a very difficult cover. 

The Nuggets are one of the three best teams in the West, and, yet, they don’t scare me at all.

Switch

This may be the first time in the history of this column that I’ve called for a switch. I’m not calling for it because I love the idea–I’m calling for it because I don’t like any of the other ideas due to Jokic’s passing game. Switching keeps a man on Murray at all times and also accounts for Jokic. While you don’t want, say, Josh Richardson on Jokic, the European big man is not quick. Help defenders will have time to come over if Jokic has an opportunity to abuse a smaller switched defender.

This game is all about containing Murray and Jokic. Will Barton is a spark plug and allowing him to heat up will make Brett Brown’s job much more difficult in-game. But, you’ll settle for whatever the rest of the Nuggets do. I’m not saying it’s acceptable for eight Nuggets to score 10-12 points in this game; I’m saying that I trust the Sixers defense to take everyone outside of Jokic, Murray, and Barton out of the game.

Prediction: Sixers 112, Nuggets 107

Charlotte Hornets

November 10, 6 PM, Wells Fargo Center (NBCS Philly)

This one is quite simple. No disrespect towards the Hornets or to our sensational Charlotte beat reporter Jack Duffy, but there really isn’t much to say here. The Hornets are not trying to lose like a tanker, they’re just constructed to not win (like a tanker). If the Sixers show up and respect the opponent, Embiid and Horford can rest in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: Sixers 122, Hornets 95