10:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: 76ers -5.5, Over/Under: 229.5
A pair of teams who figured to be vastly improved coming into this 2020-2021 campaign meet tonight in the Pacific Northwest, though only one has managed to live up to their billing as the shorthanded Portland Trail Blazers look to remain afloat as they host the East-leading Philadelphia 76ers from MODA Center in Portland, Oregon. After a disappointing season in which they flat-out underachieved, the 76ers (18-7, 1st in Eastern Conference) took a long, hard look in the mirror and decided that changes needed to be made, and rightfully so; at 43-30, the team finished an uninspiring sixth in the East before being unceremoniously swept by the Boston Celtics in the First Round of the Playoffs. As a result, (Head Coach) Brett Brown was relieved of his duties after seven years on the job, and (General Manager) Elton Brand saw his power and influence diminished following the arrival of former Rockets’ lead executive, Daryl Morey, as President of Basketball Operations. Brown would eventually be replaced by Doc Rivers, with the venerable Head Coach combining with Morey to set about fixing a talented yet ill-fitting roster that never managed to become greater than the sum of it’s parts. And it’s with that said that Philadelphia managed to dump (All-Star Forward) Al Horford’s sizable contract only a year after acquiring him, sending him to the Oklahoma City Thunder in a deal that brought back (three-time NBA Champion) Danny Green (8.8 PTS, 38.8% FG, 36.2% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.1 STL, 0.7 BLK, 10.1 PER) in return. They would also package (young Guard) Josh Richardson to Dallas in a coup for (sharpshooter) Seth Curry (12.7 PTS, 50.3% FG, 50.7% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 14.9 PER), with both deals made in an effort to bring some sorely-needed perimeter shooting and spacing to an attack that noticeably lacked it over the past two seasons. With the offense now opened up, there is more room for (All-Stars) Joel Embiid (29.1 PTS, 54.7% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 11.0 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 1.3 BLK, 31.2 PER) and Ben Simmons (13.5 PTS, 54.0% FG, 16.7% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 8.0 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 18.0 PER) to operate, while (versatile Forward) Tobias Harris (20.3 PTS, 51.5% FG, 43.8% 3FG, 7.5 REB< 2.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 18.7 PER) has become a bigger contributor as well; the 28-year old is shooting a career-high 51.5% from the field and 43.8% from beyond the arc and 54.5% from within it. Embiid though has seen the most dramatic improvement, with Rivers motivating him like never before into the best shape of his young career. The seven-foot, Cameroon international has established himself as a bonafide MVP candidate, posting career-bests in a slew of categories including points (29.1), field goal percentage (54.7%), two-point percentage (58.5%), three-point percentage (37.7%), free-throw percentage (85.5%), and steals (1.4), all the while logging the highest PER in the National Basketball Association (31.2). With a few players out due to COVID-19 (Curry the most notable of them), the 26-year old has carried the attack over his last nine games, averaging 34.1 points on 55.8% shooting, including 35.7% from downtown, along with 10.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.0 blocks in a period in which the Sixers have gone 8-1. Clinging to a 1.5-game lead for first in the Eastern Conference, Rivers’ charges rank eighth overall in points scored (114.3) and points allowed (110.2), fifth and fourth in field goal percentage offense (47.8%) and defense (44.5%), while leading the league in free-throws attempted (26.4) and blocks (6.3). The only real criticism that can lobby towards this current incarnation of the team is that Simmons appears to have been marginalized to a degree, with the former No. One Overall Pick averaging career-lows in points (13.5) and field goal attempts (9.7) despite remaining a triple-double threat and force on the defensive end of the hardwood.
“I loved the defense first. This is a very good offensive team. Holding them to 20 points in the third and fourth quarter is great. I loved our execution. It’s important at the end of the game our guys understand who we want to play through and the ball moves from there.”Doc Rivers on the 76ers’ defense down the stretch in Tuesday’s 119-111 victory over the streaking Kings.
When we last saw the 76ers, they won their ninth game in eleven outings as they kicked off a four-game road trip westward with a 119-111 victory over the Sacramento Kings, snapping their four-game winning streak. This matchup was one of highs and lows, folks, for the visitors would outscore their opponent 42-32 in the First Quarter only to be bested 39-24 in the second period. However, the Fourth Quarter is where this affair was ultimately decided; Philadelphia would top Sacramento 32-20 in the final stanza, shooting a stellar 9-of-18 from the field (50.0%), including 3-of-4 from beyond the arc (75.0%), with the biggest difference proving to be their residence at the charity stripe (11-of-13), outscoring the hosts by nine points alone. The aforementioned tandem of Embiid and Harris accounted for twenty-two of their team’s point total in the quarter, outscoring the Kings by themselves. Rivers had to have been impressed with his side’s defensive performance in the fourth, particularly after capitulating in the second, relegating the home side to a miserable 8-of-27 shooting in the period (29.6%), including 2-of-10 from downtown (20.0%), and all but keeping them off the free-throw line (2-of-4). In the end, it was a total team effort for the Sixers, with six different players scoring double-figures, including three with 20+, led by Embiid with twenty-five, making up for a relatively poor shooting display from the field (6-of-15) by killing it from the stripe (13-of-14), to go along with seventeen rebounds, six assists, and two steals and blocks apiece. Harris and the recently returned Curry, who has slowly worked his way back from the virus, each totaled twenty-two points, with the former offering ten rebounds and the latter netting 4-of-6 from three (66.7%). Simmons was once again unspectacular despite filling the stat sheet with fourteen points, seven rebounds, and nine assists. This is the kind of performance that we’ve come to expect from Philadelphia, who shot an efficient 48.2% from the field, including a solid 9-of-20 from long-range (45.0%), while planting a flag at the free-throw line with 28-of-35 shooting (80.0%), and destroying the opposition on the glass (65-50). Sure, they committed seventeen turnovers, but as long as Simmons is handling the basketball, that can be expected for time to time. Now it’s on to Portland, where they’ll be looking to avenge a disappointing 121-105 loss in the previous meeting just six days ago at Wells Fargo. Embiid dominated with thirty-one of his thirty-seven points in the First Half, but the Sixers nonetheless stood tied at intermission with the shorthanded Blazers, who were missing their top three lading scorers. Portland tormented them from the arc (Plus-18) and pounced on eighteen turnovers which they parlayed into twenty-seven points.
Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers (13-10, 5th in Western Conference) figured to be among the contenders out West after entering this campaign with a clean bill of health, which was something that largely eluded them last season until the NBA returned to action within the Bubble. One of the six teams outside of the Playoff field to be invited to Orlando, Portland made the most of their experience, winning six of their eight seeding games before stealing the Eighth Seed from the Memphis Grizzlies in the Play-In Game. Unfortunately, Terry Stotts’ charges would run out of gas in their First Round matchup with the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, but that brief sample set served as proof of what this team was indeed capable of when at full strength, thus the optimism coming into 2020-2021. As fate would have it, the Blazers once again find themselves embroiled within an injury-ravaged campaign, with a number of key figures in their rotation sidelined for significant time. It all began with (Power Forward) Zach Collins, who after missing all but eleven games last season following shoulder surgery, has failed to suit up at any point thus far due to an ankle injury that has required revision surgery, with no timetable for his return. Towering Center, Jusuf Nurkic (9.8 PTS, 48.5% FG, 25.0% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.1 PER), who also missed nearly all of the previous campaign rehabbing from a broken leg, lasted just twelve games into this year before succumbing to torn ligaments in his wrist on January 15th, keeping him out of action for at least another five weeks. Oh, and then (sharpshooting Guard) C.J. McCollum (26.7 PTS, 47.3% FG, 44.1% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 26.4 PER) broke a bone in his left foot just four days later, with a four-week timetable projected before reevaluation. Needless to say, that’s an awful lot of bad news for a team that has unfortunately become accustomed to receiving it. Losing Nurkic is one thing, for Portland had gotten used to playing without him last season, and with (veteran Center) Enes Kanter (9.8 PTS, 48.5% FG, 7.7 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 9.4 PER) back in the Northwest, they’re not without a capable big that can contribute. The loss of McCollum though hurts for a variety of reasons; apart from being one half of arguably the most prolific Backcourt in the Association, the 29-year old was in the midst of a career campaign and looked like a shoe-in for his first All-Star Selection, posting career figures in a slew of categories including points (26.7), three-point percentage (44.1%), two-point percentage (51.3%), assists (5.0), steals (1.3), and PER (26.4). With all that said, when most teams would stumble down the standings under these circumstances, the Blazers have held firm as they cling to fifth in always-competitive Western Conference. Of course, when you have a bonfide gamer like (All-NBA Guard) Damian Lillard (29.4 PTS, 45.4% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 7.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 26.7 PER) leading the show anything is possible; the 30-year old is coming off his finest season yet with career-highs in a number of categories, while almost singlehandedly willing his side through the Bubble into the Playoffs last year with dagger after dagger keeping Portland alive. Lillard hasn’t been far off his torrid pace from a season ago, averaging 29.4 points on 45.4% shooting and 38.9% from three, and since McCollum went down he has taken his play another level once again; over the last nine contests, the five-time All-Star has posted averages of 31.6 points per game on 47.6% shooting from the field, including 41.9%, 4.3 rebounds, 7.8 assists, and 1.0 steal as the club has gone 5-4 over that span.
“I don’t know how long he’s going to play. He could play a few more years, I don’t know. But he was a professional force last year, he’s been really good for us this year. There’s some highs and lows, but he has earned the respect of our organization, of his teammates, his coaches.”Terry Stotts on Carmelo Anthony’s performance as he passed Oscar Robertson to move into twelfth on the NBA’s All-Time Scoring List
When we last saw the Trail Blazers, they managed to win their third in four outings as they toppled the Orlando Magic in a 106-97 affair at home, their first at MODA Center following a six-game road trip. Though both teams started off slowly, Portland did outscore the visiting side 31-19 in the First Quarter, ironically due to the play of their much-maligned defense; Stotts had to have been impressed with his troops as they relegated Orlando to a dismal 9-of-23 shooting from the floor (39.1%), including 0-of-6 from beyond the arc (0.0%) in the first period, outscoring them by fifteen points in that last regard. The hosts led by as many sixteen in the first frame and held a 45-28 advantage midway through the second, but a 10-3 run to close out the First Half meant that the lead was just 50-43 at intermission. The Magic would get no closer than that at any point, as (veteran Forward) Carmelo Anthony (12.5 PTS, 38.0% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 13.0 PER) put in arguably his finest performance of the campaign thus far with twenty-three points on on 7-of-16 shooting from the field (43.8%), including 5-of-9 from downtown (55.6%), along with three rebounds and blocks apiece off the bench. The 36-year old returned from basketball obscurity to play a crucial role in Portland’s survival last season, and has continued to do so this season averaging 12.5 points on 38.0% shooting overall, including 36.8% from three, with 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 25.4 minutes off the pine. The 10-time All-Star also made some serious history in Tuesday’s victory, passing (Hall of Fame Guard) Oscar Robertson for twelfth place on the NBA’s All-Time Scoring List. For the record, he’s only thirty-two points away from passing Hakeem Olajuwon for eleventh. Lillard led the way with a game-high thirty-six points, netting 5-of-10 from the perimeter (50.0% )and all thirteen of his free-throw attempts. (Young Swingman) Gary Trent (14.0 PTS, 41.5% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.8 PER) was key in the early stages of the game, scoring all fifteen of his points in the First Half, along with four rebounds nd six assists on the night. Though they only shot 38.9% overall from the field, the Blazers made their bones from beyond the arc, netting 18-of-46 three-pointers (39.1%), which led to a commanding 21-point advantage that proved to be the difference in the game. Now they’ll be looking to best the East-leading Sixers for the second time in a week, and this time they’ll have Lillard back in the lineup; that’s right, folks, the Blazers humbled the 76ers by sixteen points when they last met without Lillard, McCollum, and Nurkic, largely on the strength of a watershed Third Quarter in which they outscored the hosts 40-19. Portland made the most of nine Philadelphia turnovers in that period, en route to seeing a remarkable six different players score in double-figures, with Anthony and Trent combining for forty-six points in the win.