Hello, Sixers fans. Welcome back.
The Sixers (39-26) on Saturday night will play their first meaningful basketball game since the NBA season was suspended on March 11 amid the coronavirus pandemic. They’ll take on the Indiana Pacers (39-26) at Visa Athletic Center in Disney World in their first of eight seeding games.
Joel Embiid was not listed on the NBA’s official injury report Friday night after missing the Sixers’ last two scrimmages with right calf tightness. Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful, while Raul Neto (lower back tightness) is probable.
Indiana will be without All-Star Domantas Sabonis (plantar fasciitis), who left the NBA’s bubble to get treatment. Malcolm Brogdon (cervical strain) is questionable. Though he’s not listed on the injury report, the status of Victor Oladipo remains unknown. The All-Star guard originally opted out of the NBA’s restart but said he’s now “optimistic” about playing.
Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:
When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6
Where: Visa Athletic Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app
And here are three storylines to watch:
Shake-up in the starting lineup
Brett Brown looked back on the Sixers’ first 65 games and saw one possible way to help remedy his roster’s clunky offensive fit. He decided to make second-year guard Shake Milton, who was on fire when play was paused, his starting point guard and move Ben Simmons to the four. That means Al Horford shifts to a role as a strong – albeit very expensive – sixth man.
Why make that move now? The stars sort of aligned for Brown. He gave Simmons the ball as a point guard as a rookie because of the Australian’s unique skill set and court vision. While Brown has used Simmons in an off-ball role as a screener and roller at times, he didn’t have the necessary ball handler to unleash Simmons in that way. Milton emerged with his ridiculous run and his proven shooting stroke theoretically makes for an excellent fit.
In the first two scrimmages, Simmons was the best player on the floor – on both ends. He was still flying up the floor with the ball in transition and now making plays from the elbow in the half court. Milton continued to shoot the ball well in the starting lineup and the pair showed chemistry in a very small sample size.
As for Horford, the 34-year-old did look refreshed after the layoff. He admitted prior to the team arriving in Disney World that he wasn’t where he wanted to be physically at times this season. He represents a significant upgrade as a backup center over last season’s options, but how will his minutes with Embiid go?
We’ll see how this move works out through the eight seedings games, but it seemed necessary to jolt a team that ranks 18th in offensive rating this season.
The rotation battle
While the picture is becoming clearer, there will still be a battle for minutes. Brown has said he’ll play 10 guys in the seeding games, but that number will shrink to 9 for the playoffs. The starting five and Horford are locked in. When everyone is health, those last four spots for the “regular season” will likely go to Matisse Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Alec Burks and Robinson.
Thybulle and Robinson stuck out among that group. Thybulle was as impactful as ever getting into passing lanes and disrupting offenses. Robinson was just solid all around, providing energy and making shots. Korkmaz really struggled during the last two scrimmages, both with his shot and defensively. Burks will likely get minutes because he is a shot creator on a team that doesn’t have much shot creating ability.
Veteran Mike Scott, who was a big part of the Sixers’ bench during last year’s postseason, appears to be on the outside looking in. With Robinson doubtful, he may get a few minutes in this one.
Does seeding matter?
The simple answer is likely no, but let’s break it down.
The Sixers currently sit in sixth at 39-26. The Pacers have the same record but are ahead because of tiebreakers (the Sixers could even the season series at 2-2 with a win tonight). With Sabonis and Oladipo’s statuses up in the air, Indiana could struggle to stay in fifth. The Heat (41-24) are two games up in fourth while the Celtics (43-22) are four games up in third. So, what does it all mean?
The Sixers aren’t going to mess around and try to pick their opponent. That is a dangerous game. They’re likely not making up four games to catch Boston. If they remain in sixth, they’d likely face a Celtics team they beat three out of four times.
It seems more like they’re on a collision course to meet their old friend Jimmy Butler and Miami, who beat the Sixers three out of four times this season, in the first round. Which team is the fourth or fifth seed shouldn’t make much difference at a neutral site.
What’s more important for these eight seeding games is the Sixers fine-tuning themselves for the postseason. If they don’t resolve their own issues, it might not matter who they play in the first round.
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