76ers

Sixers-Suns 5 things: First sighting of an Embiid-Noel pairing?

Sixers-Suns 5 things: First sighting of an Embiid-Noel pairing?

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.

Four wins.

“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.”

4. Injuries
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.

There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

There are positive signs, but still glaring issues with Sixers

After dropping their second straight game in overtime Friday night in Oklahoma City (see observations), the Sixers at times sounded like a team looking for answers.

More of that is likely struggling to answer questions coming off another brutal loss. They have an idea why they’ve lost five of their last seven after starting their season 5-0. A large part of it is a group with a bunch of new faces that are still figuring each other out. On Friday, fouls were an issue as they allowed the Thunder to attempt 41 free throws.

For a team that has championship aspirations and got off to such a hot start, this isn’t where they expected to be 12 games into the season.

“Obviously we're frustrated,” Tobias Harris said to reporters postgame. “7-5 is not where we want to be. It's early in the season and right now we're going to progress and get better and figure out ways that we can help each other and help our team and go from there. This game is over. Tomorrow, we'll watch film on it, we'll find out which ways that we can better ourselves and be ready for the next game. [We’re] 7-5 right now but ... we'll just go into the next game and be ready to get that win and go from there.”

There are reasons for optimism — with Harris being arguably the biggest.

After missing 23 straight threes and looking lost recently, Harris splashed his first trey of the game and looked like a totally different player. He finished with 21 points on 8 of 16 from the field and 3 of 4 from three. He was much more aggressive and decisive than he’d been in the previous two games.

Josh Richardson, returning to his native Oklahoma, has continued to show signs of improvement. He poured in 28 points, his highest total as a Sixer. More importantly, he’s looked much more comfortable in the offense as he figures out his role.

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both had their moments. Embiid had a game-high 31 points and Simmons broke out after a quiet first half to play the entire second half.

One of the team’s biggest issues is figuring out the pairing of Embiid and Al Horford. The reality is Horford has never played with a center like Embiid who demands the ball and attention offensively. It’s been an obvious adjustment for Horford, who shot just 5 of 12 Friday and has done most of his damage with Embiid off the floor.

The uncomfortable offensive fit for the entire starting five has been a big reason the Sixers have been involved in so many close games. A familiar theme emerged Friday, as the Sixers held a nine-point advantage with 7:20 to go in the game. Instead of hitting the gas and putting the Thunder away, they gave up a 12-2 run and saw their lead evaporate.

These are talented players that have won in different places. They’re still learning how to win together.

“I was just telling Al about that,” Harris said, “and really it's just I think a matter of right now we are yet to be up like eight points and push that to 15 and really push what we're doing and move forward with that, and really imposing our will and dominating. And that's something that we have to get to and that's something I think we're still learning — how we can do that and how we can make those type of runs. That's something we definitely got to get better at.”

The good news is you see the talent and recognize some of the issues.

And Brett Brown has 70 games to figure it out.

“If you're sick and you don't know why, that's a problem,” Brown said. “We are in a tough spot right now, but it's a long year. I think that it doesn't take much for me to understand where we have to get better. And it's really that simple. If you're scratching your head, sort of confused, then I think we got some problems and that's not what I'm doing. I think the guys understand the areas that matter most that can best impact changing the way things are going and get back on the winning side.”

They know the problems, now they just have to answer the questions.

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Sixers Talk podcast: What went wrong in OKC?

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NBCSP/USA Today Images

Sixers Talk podcast: What went wrong in OKC?

Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss Brett Brown's decision to have Furkan Korkmaz play key minutes in overtime, using more pick-and-rolls with Joel Embiid, and the loss to the Thunder.

• Should Brown have gone to Korkmaz when Tobias Harris fouled out in overtime?

• Do the Sixers need to rework their offense?

• The starting lineup looked good at times, but what went wrong in OKC?

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers