The Bulls are shooting for their second win in a row, but the Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers stand in their way. The game tips off at 6 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:
76ers’ last five games (3-2)
Jan. 15 — W vs. Nets: 117-106
Jan. 13 — L at Pacers: 101-95
Jan. 11 — L at Mavericks: 109-91
Jan. 9 — W vs. Celtics: 109-98
Jan. 6 — W vs. Thunder: 120-113
Storyline(s) to watch
Billed by many as true title contenders and the favorites to come out of the East, the Sixers’ (26-16) season has been of the hot-and-cold variety so far. Fortunately for people like me, it’s pretty easy to delineate when they’ll be which temperature: Philadelphia is 19-2 on its home floor in 2019-20 while just 7-14 on the road, and some of the statistical disparities are positively gaping:
|Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating||Net Rating||3P%||TOV per game|
|Home||112.1 (9th)||102.5 (3rd)||9.6 (5th)||37.5% (7th)||14.4 (15th)|
|Road||105.9 (22nd)||109 (11th)||-3.1 (18th)||33.5% (24th)||15.1 (18th)|
Still, the Sixers are a suffocating defensive team with a litany of impressive wins under their belt (chiefly, their Christmas Day romp of the Bucks). And unfortunately for the Bulls, this one will take place in the city of brotherly love. A second straight win, and one against an above-.500 team, would be a major boost, but the Sixers’ impossible length and physicality make them a daunting matchup.
Player(s) to watch: Sixers’ wings
Without Joel Embiid (torn hand ligament), the Sixers will likely trot out a starting unit of Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Though the absence of a ‘traditional’ point guard isn’t new to Philly, this type of roster construction — wing-heavy, and big wings, at that — poses an intriguing challenge for a Bulls defense that thrives when it can hone in on the head of their opponent’s snake in the pick-and-roll.
Well, the Sixers run just 13.9 pick-and-roll plays per game — second-least in the NBA to only the iso-crazed Rockets — and with good reason: they score just 0.8 points per possession on such plays. Instead, their playmakers outside of Embiid make their living from the post and elbows (Horford, Harris), off-the-dribble (Simmons), and spotting up (Richardson, Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz and Trey Burke). The spacing can get clunky (Philly’s 109 offensive rating ranks 18th in the league), but against the undersized and undermanned Bulls, they could feast anyway.
Simmons and Harris will be key. In the four games since Embiid went down, Simmons is averaging 18.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and seven assists on 58.9% shooting, and is devastating in transition, where the Bulls have been prone to lapses defensively. Harris is a capable shotmaker at all three levels (especially the interior) and is coming off his second-highest scoring outing of the season against the Nets:
Matchup to watch: Zach LaVine vs. Sixers’ perimeter defenders
Now let’s flip to the other side of the floor. That presumptive starting unit of Richardson, Thybulle, Simmons, Harris and Horford enters the night with a respectable 105.5 defensive rating and superb 19.3% turnover rate (94th percentile) in 141 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass. The Bulls will have to work for every bucket, with little to no margin for error.
Luckily, Zach LaVine’s been on a tear of late, averaging 32 points per game on 52.3/45.7/93.1 shooting splits over his last five. Unluckily, Thybulle, Richardson and Simmons (who’s leading the league in steals per game) don’t give an inch, especially around screens. Even when you think you’ve lost them, all three have shown the ability to block shots and poke away balls from behind — on Wednesday, they pestered Kyrie Irving all night long and held him to 14 points and 6-for-21 shooting.
LaVine has been up to most every scoring-related task that he’s been faced with this season, but in Philadelphia lies perhaps his greatest test. Even if the Bulls don’t pull out a win akin to their 108-107 primetime victory (in which LaVine dropped 39 and the game-winner) last March, he can still submit another bid for February’s All-Star game with a big night against stingy competition.
Chandler Hutchison (right shoulder soreness) is officially listed as questionable, though he said at shootaround Thursday that he thought he “dodged a bullet” after falling hard on his shoulder in the fourth quarter of the Wizards game. The Bulls need his size and range tonight.
Joel Embiid is out with a torn ligament in his right hand and is set to be re-evaluated next week.
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