76ers

Key matchups for Sixers' 5-game road trip

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Key matchups for Sixers' 5-game road trip

The Sixers are riding high at the moment.

They rallied last Friday for a 121-110 win over the Indiana Pacers at the Wells Fargo Center. It marked the Sixers’ fourth straight win, the first time they have accomplished that feat since a stretch from Dec. 29, 2013 to Jan. 4, 2014.

The victory also pushed the Sixers’ record to 5-4. That means they are above .500 for the first time since Nov. 13, 2013.

Now comes a real test. The Sixers open up a difficult five-game road trip on Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz.

How they handle this stretch could go a long way toward determining the Sixers’ standing around the league.

With that said, let’s break down a key matchup that might help determine the outcome of each game.

Sixers-Jazz (Backup centers vs. Rudy Gobert)
You had to know it was coming. You just didn’t know when.

Joel Embiid was ruled out for Tuesday’s clash in Salt Lake City for what was deemed “load management.” The big man has played in eight of the Sixers’ nine games to this point, and with a lengthy road trip on tap, he was always likely to sit out at least once.

That means the Sixers’ backup bigs such Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes (does Jahlil Okafor even count at this point?) will have to deal with the forceful Rudy Gobert. Gobert is averaging 13.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and a league-leading 2.5 blocks per game this season. 

About the only thing the Sixers have going for them in this instance is that the Jazz’s balanced attack allows for Gobert to have a usage rate of only 17.1 percent.

Either way, good luck climbing “The Stifle Tower” without Embiid.

Sixers-Kings (T.J. McConnell vs. De’Aaron Fox)
This spot would have been reserved for a battle of lottery selections with Markelle Fultz lining up against the speedster Fox. However, the No. 1 overall pick is still sidelined with a shoulder injury.

That doesn’t mean a battle between McConnell and Fox should be any less intriguing. 

Fox has proven to be a solid contributor early on. The No. 5 overall pick leads the Kings in points (12.7) and assists (5.0). He also averages 3.7 boards a night. Despite his sagging shooting percentages (41.2 from the field and 27.3 from three-point range), the lightning-quick lefty has provided a serious spark off the bench.

McConnell will certainly be accepting of the challenge as he relishes being a stopper on defense. He has already locked horns this season with superstars John Wall, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, so Fox will be just another high-profile name on the log.

Sixers-Warriors (Ben Simmons vs. Kevin Durant)
Ordinarily, the point guard Simmons would be matched up on is two-time league MVP Stephen Curry. But shortly into his NBA career, Simmons has proven to be anything but ordinary.

The rookie is coming off his second triple-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the Sixers’ win over the Pacers. He also contributed three blocks and two steals.

While Simmons’ offensive ability is not at all in question, his defense will be put to the test against Durant. The supreme scorer has looked even more lethal coming off his first NBA championship. 

Durant is still pouring in the points with 25.2 a game. However, it’s his shooting percentages that have really set him apart to this point in the 2017-18 campaign. He entered Monday shooting career highs from the field (54.2 percent) and three-point range (49.2 percent).

Simmons will likely switch with Robert Covington throughout the game guarding Durant, but that would potentially mean he’ll just shift to Klay Thompson. Pick your poison.

Sixers-Clippers (Dario Saric vs. Blake Griffin)
Saric has started to find his footing after a bumpy start to the season.

But next Monday he’ll get a close look at arguably the best power forward playing the game right now.

After Chris Paul’s departure for the Houston Rockets, Griffin has completely taken over the offensive load for the Rockets. The veteran is averaging 23.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists. More importantly, his increased offensive load hasn’t affected his efficiency as Griffin is scoring at a 49.3 percent clip from the field and a career-best 42.2 percent clip from long range.

The Clippers have cooled off (5-4) after winning their first four games to start the season. Still, Griffin is a legit early-season MVP candidate, and Saric better be prepared or he could find himself on one of those infamous posters.

Sixers-Lakers (Everyone vs. Lonzo Ball)
This one doesn’t need much setup. You all know the deal by now.

It started throughout the pre-draft process when LaVar Ball continually made it known that he wanted his son to play for the Lakers. After the storied franchise selected the UCLA product at No. 2, the elder Ball proclaimed on draft night that his son would also take the team to the playoffs. 

That evoked a tweet of “crazy pills” from Simmons, as well as Embiid asking Simmons to dunk on Lonzo Ball so hard that his dad would have to come save him (see story).

The tweets only stoked the flames as LaVar Ball proceeded to say the Sixers need to get off Twitter and get in the gym. That didn’t sit too kindly with Embiid, who bluntly said on July 4, “F--- LaVar Ball” in a video, which drew a fine from the league (see story).

Things between the Sixers and the Ball family have pretty much calmed down since that point (unless you’ve checked out the Twitter account of Simmons’ sister Olivia in the recent past).

But expect the Sixers to try to go at Lonzo early and often in that game, with LaVar likely sitting courtside for a clear view of the action.

Sixers-Jazz observations: A rare sweep of Utah

Sixers-Jazz observations: A rare sweep of Utah

BOX SCORE

It wasn’t a high-scoring performance like Saturday’s game against the Warriors, but the Sixers got the job done with a 107-86 win on Monday over the Jazz.

The Sixers improved to 9-7 as they swept the season series and beat the Jazz at home for the first time since Nov. 16, 2012. 

• Let’s go to the end of the game and start with the push. 

With four minutes to go, Joel Embiid swatted Donovan Mitchell’s drive and then yelled to the rookie as the Utah guard was on the ground. Mitchell bounced up and shoved Embiid, who fell as they started to run back down the court. Was Embiid fazed? Not at all. He made the “T” motion from the floor as Mitchell was whistled for a tech. The crowd broke out in a “Trust the Process” chant and Embiid smiled and waved his arms. Yes, Embiid was in his element. 

• Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of left knee soreness, played 27 minutes. He posted 15 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. Embiid started to hit his stride in the second quarter (seven points, four rebounds in 6:22). The big man, who wants to live at the foul line, didn’t attempt his first free throw until three minutes into the quarter.

• Ben Simmons broke out of a quiet first half in which he shot 2 for 9 from the field (five points). He scored 14 points in the third and finished with a career-high 27 (13 for 24 from the field, 1 for 4 from the line). Simmons had his 11th double-double with 10 rebounds. He had a season-low two dimes. The rookie point guard (four steals) joined Paul George, Steph Curry and Kent Bazemore as the only players with 30 steals so far this season. 

• JJ Redick scored all 20 of his points in the second half. After going 0 for 3 from the field through two quarters, he wrapped up the game by going 6 for 10 from the field (2 for 2 from three).

• The game was in the Sixers’ control the entire way. They held the Jazz to 15 points in the first quarter, the least amount of points scored by a Sixers’ opponent in any quarter this season. That’s what shooting 25 percent from the field will do. The Jazz have had trouble keeping up with the Sixers early on. They actually held the mark for fewest first-quarter points (21) by a Sixers’ opponent in their first matchup on Nov. 7. 

• The starters combined for just nine of the Sixers’ 25 first-quarter points. Robert Covington and Redick were scoreless while T.J. McConnell led all players after one frame with eight points. 

• Amir Johnson impressed with 8 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

• Two-way contract player Jacob Pullen made his NBA debut in the final minute of the game.

• Injury updates: The Sixers’ Justin Anderson (left leg), Markelle Fultz (right shoulder) and Nik Stauskas (right ankle) were sidelined. Dante Exum (left shoulder), Rudy Gobert (right leg) and Joe Johnson (right wrist) were out for the Jazz. 

• Eagles running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery were in attendance. You can imagine what happened.

• The Sixers had a very special guest as the ceremonial bell ringer. Seventeen-year-old Mike Shelly won the Chick-fil-A half-court shot contest on Saturday with a jaw-dropping basket. When the Sixers later learned his story of battling Stage 4 Lymphoma and losing his brother in a motor vehicle accident, they decided to bring him back for a memorable night (see video). In addition to the pregame ceremony, Shelly also will fly with the Sixers to Atlanta in March and tour the Chick-fil-A facility. 

• The Sixers served up Four’N Twenty beef pies at halftime in honor of their first international partnership with the Australian company. My verdict: not bad. NBC Sports Philadelphia video producer Christina Betz has an in-depth review here

Joel Embiid questionable vs. Jazz with left knee soreness

Joel Embiid questionable vs. Jazz with left knee soreness

CAMDEN, N.J. -- Joel Embiid is questionable for the Sixers' Monday's matchup against the Jazz but the big man expects to play. 

Embiid will be a game-time decision because of left knee soreness. He is experiencing tightness and will go through pregame warmups to see how he reacts. After that, the call will up be up to him. 

"My whole body's a little bit sore, but I think I should be playing tonight," Embiid said. "If I feel good, I'll play. It's not on them (the Sixers). I think it's more on me."

Embiid took three-point shots and free throws after shootaround Monday. He did not attribute the discomfort to one play in particular. He took a tough spill Saturday against the Warriors but said that wasn't the specific cause.

"Maybe just a little bit because I landed on both of my knees," Embiid said. "It wasn't a little bit painful but it's nothing to be worried about." 

Embiid said his questionable status was not because of needing a day to rest. Embiid played 33 minutes Saturday. In fact, he said he was going to be "set free, basically" in terms of his minutes following that game. 

Embiid shot "a little bit" at Sunday's practice and did not go through shootaround Monday, something he has been doing to make keep his body ready for the game itself. 

"There's still a schedule in place," Embiid said. "I'm not cleared for back-to-backs yet. I expect at some point this season to be playing back-to-backs. You've just got to follow the plan and see how my body reacts. But it's been going well so far." 

Embiid has sat out twice this season, the last time being against the Jazz in Salt Lake City. The Sixers won that game, 104-97. 

The Sixers know what they have to do if Embiid cannot play. Dario Saric scored 25 points and JJ Redick added 20 in the Sixers' victory over the Jazz. Richaun Holmes started that night in place of Embiid, but he also is questionable because of gastroenteritis. Expect Amir Johnson, who did not play against the Warriors, to see more minutes if neither big can play. 

"In that case [without Embiid], we need to share the ball, we need to move a lot, we need to play a little bit faster," Saric said. "Try to attack Utah in the fast break because they are a really good defensive team of the half court." 

Jerryd Bayless is cleared to return after missing the last six games because of a left wrist injury. Justin Anderson (left leg) and Nik Stauskas (right ankle) are out.