Sixers (7-21) at Suns (8-21)
9 p.m. on CSN/CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports app; Pregame Live at 8:30
The Sixers begin a four-game West Coast trip tonight against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena in their final game before Christmas. They resume play Monday, when they head to Sacramento, Utah and then Denver before coming home after the New Year.
Let’s take a closer look at tonight’s matchup.
1. Better together
Could tonight be the first time we see Joel Embiid and Nerlens Noel together on the court? If Embiid has it his way, Sixers head coach Brett Brown will give the duo a chance to gel.
After Tuesday’s 108-93 loss to the Pelicans, Embiid expressed his interest to play with Noel, referencing Brown’s decision to play Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together but not him and Noel.
“I also want to get on the court and see what we can look like together because I like him and I want to play with everybody,” Embiid said of playing with Noel. “I feel like if we’re trying something, I feel like we should try the other thing too.”
With Noel returning from a knee injury that sidelined him the first two months Dec. 11, Brown’s big-man dilemma that was already burdensome got even more challenging. Noel voiced his frustrations for his limited role Dec. 16, saying the Sixers need to “figure this s--- out.” Brown later said Noel would not be part of their regular rotation, only playing when foul trouble arises.
Noel has played eight, zero and seven minutes in the Sixers’ last three games. He played just 10 minutes before spraining his ankle in his season debut and then missed a game. When he checked into Tuesday’s game, he entered to a standing ovation from Sixers fans.
The Sixers have tried Embiid and Okafor together with little success. In fact, Brown has started Embiid and Okafor at the four and five in the last four games to the tune of a 1-3 record. That is the plan again tonight, as Brown said he wants an eight-game sample size with the two.
With regards to Embiid’s sentiment of playing with Noel, Brown agreed with the rookie center, but hinted he will hold off on the experiment until Noel’s conditioning gets up to par.
“I feel like the bottom line is we have these three bigs and we need to experiment,” Brown said. “We need to try different things. It’s on Nerlens to get himself back in shape and learn what we’re actually running. It will be on our bigs to find ways to coexist and for me to manage it. And I think they’re great. The conversations we’ve all had have been very transparent and candid and we look forward to seeing those two (Noel and Embiid) amongst other combinations as well.”
2. Great expectations
Embiid has big expectations for the Sixers on this four-game West Coast swing.
“We’ve just gotta play together, share the ball, get back to being that defensive-minded team,” Embiid, who’s averaging 17.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks on a minutes restriction, said Thursday. “The last couple of games we haven’t played any defense. We gotta get back to that.”
It has been a while, however, since the Sixers have last won four straight games -- three seasons ago, when they won four games from Dec. 29, 2013, to Jan. 4, 2014. The Sixers have strung together just two wins in a row twice this season, still without an official win streak.
Entering tonight’s game on a loss and taking into account the Sixers’ 2-7 road record, talking win streak is looking too far ahead, but they do have winnable games beginning in Phoenix.
The Suns have one more win than the Sixers, and lost in Philadelphia, 120-105, Nov. 19 for the Sixers’ third win of the season. Phoenix also enters on a four-game losing streak, and is 2-8 in its last 10 games. Also on the trip include dates with the Kings and Nuggets, both 12-17. Utah is 18-12, which presents the toughest challenge, on paper. Four wins on the trip seems farfetched, but the Sixers could come back home easily with two, possibly three.
3. Searching for answers
Losing four straight and eight of their last 10 games, the Suns check into tonight’s game in disarray. They have allowed 100 points or more in 12 consecutive games, something Phoenix coach Earl Watson is actively looking to find an answer for.
With T.J. Warren now healthy and dropping 19 points in Phoenix’s 125-111 loss to Houston Wednesday, Watson now has to decide which is more important: offense or defense.
P.J. Tucker presents Watson a better option defensively, an area the rebuilding Suns are lacking in, than Warren. But the scoring touch of Warren, who’s averaging 15.7 points this season, puts Watson is an interesting situation, but he hinted that Tucker would remain in the starting lineup.
“We look at our team and what we need to build upon,” Watson said, via the AP. “We know we need toughness. We know we need defensive-minded players. We already have one, so we want to continue to build around (Tucker’s) personality on defense.”
Sixers: Nik Stauskas (knee) is probable. Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out.
Suns: Brandon Knight (right thigh) and Leandro Barbosa (right knee) are both questionable.
5. This and that
• A win would be the Sixers’ eighth of the season. They didn’t win their eighth game last season until Feb. 6 against the Brooklyn Nets, and it would be the fastest to eight wins since 2012-13.
• Ersan Ilyasova, who came off the bench Tuesday, is averaging 14.4 points in 25 games since being acquired from Oklahoma City. He has double-digit points in nine straight.
• Opponents are shooting 39.2 percent from three-point range against the Suns, second worst in the NBA, while the Sixers are holding opponents to 34.8 percent, which ranks in the top 15.