Sixers-Trail Blazers 5 things: Opening up a difficult road trip

Sixers-Trail Blazers 5 things: Opening up a difficult road trip

The Sixers (23-40) kick off a four-game road trip against the Portland Trail Blazers (27-35) at Moda Center on Thursday night (10 p.m./TCN, CSNPhilly.com, and the NBC Sports app).

Let's take a closer look at the matchup:

1. On the road again
Ready or not, here they come.

The banged-up and shorthanded Sixers are set to embark on a tough road trip. The trek includes stops in Portland, Los Angeles (against both the Clippers and Lakers) and Oakland.

That means games against the playoff-bound Clippers and Warriors with the opener vs. the Trail Blazers, who are just one game out of the final postseason spot in the Western Conference.

Overall, the Sixers are beginning a stretch of 11 games out of 14 on the road with clashes against some of the top teams in the entire league.

"I look at it very clearly in my eyes," Brett Brown said before practice on Monday (see story). "The first thing that I'll tell everybody is bunker down -- fans, media, players. We've done this for four years. We completely understand what's around the corner."

2. Unleash the lion
What's also around the corner is more Justin Anderson.

The young swingman has been unleashed since being acquired from the Mavericks. In six games after the deal, Anderson is averaging 9.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.2 assists in 19.5 minutes.

Anderson is coming off a 19-point performance -- his second in the last three games -- in Monday's blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The 23-year-old shot 9 of 16 from the field but 0 of 6 from three-point range. His numbers from deep could determine his long-term stability with the Sixers (see story).

In the meantime, the Sixers will need similar offensive outputs from Anderson on this road swing. Plus, his high-energy defense will be put to the test against the likes of Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Chris Paul, D'Angelo Russell, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

3. Three for all
The Blazers aren't having any trouble shooting threes this season. Portland is tied for eighth in the NBA in three-point percentage at 36.9.

Somehow, the Blazers have been much better from long range during their current three-game win streak. They have drilled double-digit three-pointers in each game and connected on an incredible 50.6 percent from distance.

Allen Crabbe has led the way with eight treys over that span, while Lillard, McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu each have seven.

4. Injuries
Gerald Henderson (hip) and Richaun Holmes (hamstring) are probable. Jahlil Okafor (knee) is questionable. Tiago Spillter (calf), Joel Embiid (knee), Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are all out.

Evan Turner (hand), Ed Davis (shoulder) and Festus Ezeli (knee) are out for the Trail Blazers.

5. This and that
• The Sixers are going for a season sweep of the Blazers after a 93-92 home win over them on Jan. 20.

• Center Jusuf Nurkic is averaging 14.9 points (54.9 percent shooting), 8.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks in seven games since being acquired by the Blazers at the trade deadline.

• Robert Covington has made at least two three-pointers in 10 straight games.

Spoiler alert: Al Horford is a better teammate than film critic

Spoiler alert: Al Horford is a better teammate than film critic

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers’ most recent bonding experience was a screening of the movie Joker.

Don’t worry, no spoilers here.

Al Horford said he was “disappointed” by the critically acclaimed filmed about the DC comic book villain, but he was pleased with the experience being around his teammates.

While this might seem silly, it’s no small thing. JJ Redick mentioned on Zach Lowe’s podcast last month that he felt like the Sixers didn’t have enough team dinners. Those dinners on the road are often looked at as team bonding experiences.

Horford is easily the team’s most seasoned player at 33 years old and a veteran of 12 NBA seasons. He’s seen his fair share of changes and roster turnover now playing for his third team.

But it’s been two of the returning Sixers that have led the way when it comes to team bonding.

“I think the willingness of everyone trying to make that happen,” Horford said after practice Thursday. “Tobias [Harris] I think has been a big influence on all of us making sure that we're all getting together. Ben [Simmons] as well has taken that leadership role. So we're doing stuff — not all the time — but we're going to watch movies together, we're doing things as a team, as a group and that has been nice. I feel like those kind of things bring teams closer.”

It was Harris and Simmons who organized the Joker screening during the road trip in Charlotte and the paintball excursion a few weeks back before camp began.

And it’s not just the players that feel the chemistry growing. Their head coach has also seen the growth from the start of training camp until now.

“That they coexist well,” Brett Brown said when asked what he’s learned about his team. “That they seem to enjoy each other's company. That they have bought in in a significant way that we are a defensive-oriented team. That we are long — we can be disruptive. And there has been an unselfishness on the offensive end that hasn't been hard to extract. It's quite actually organic. The guys sort of think like that, which makes my job a lot easier.”

The idea that the Sixers will be a defensive-oriented team started with the way GM Elton Brand constructed his roster. Bringing in Horford and Josh Richardson to create a monstrous starting five is part of it. It’s also just having a bunch of players that have that mindset.

Both Embiid and Simmons have stated their goal is to win Defensive Player of the Year. Horford and Richardson have always been praised for their two-way play. Even Harris, who has shown signs of improvement on that end, went to Brown this offseason and told him he wasn’t going to be the weak link of the team defensively.

It’s quite a change from a team that took a huge step back defensively last season. Going into opening night against Boston next week, the Sixers want to be the best defensive team in the league.

“We know we certainly have the capability, but just guys giving multiple efforts gives me the sense we can be very special,” Horford said. “But it's one of those things that we have to be consistent with that every day in order to accomplish those goals, and we've been doing a good job of that. We just have to continue to do it.”

With just one more preseason game on the docket Friday night against the Wizards, there is certainly a vibe with the team of just wanting to prepare for next Wednesday. Brown admitted that he’s already begun his prep for the Celtics.

It’s an encouraging sign that his team appears to have come together so quickly but Brown knows none of that matters if it doesn’t translate to when the games count.

“I would say yes. I feel that if you looked at just the character of the people, I'd say no,” Brown said when asked if he was surprised with the team’s bonding. “But in general — and let's call it also what it is — we really haven't played legitimate, NBA basketball yet. …

“You roll into Wells Fargo against the Celtics on opening night, the rules change in significant ways. And that's when we're all going to have more meaningful conversations about like, 'Where are we at? What have I learned? Have they come together quickly and why?' It gets far more scrutinized when it's that type of environment than it does right now.”

Hopefully Horford enjoys his team’s performance on opening night more than he did Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal as the Crown Prince of Crime.

“Oh, a lot of the guys liked it,” Horford said. “I thought it was going to be different. I thought it was going to be more action. So it was one of those things, I was a little disappointed.”

Spoiler alert: Al Horford is a better teammate and basketball player than film critic.

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NBA GM survey: Sixers seen as a better team than last year, but Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons mostly fly under radar

NBA GM survey: Sixers seen as a better team than last year, but Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons mostly fly under radar

If you’re seeking to break outside the local bubble and understand the league’s view of your team, the NBA.com GM survey is a helpful tool.

John Schuhmann had the league’s general managers respond to 50 different questions about coaches, players, teams and more. GMs were, of course, prohibited from selecting their own team or members of their organization. 

Below are a few interesting Sixers-related takeaways.

What a difference a year makes 

On opening night last season, the Sixers started Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid. In the eyes of NBA GMs, replacing Fultz, Covington and Saric with Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Al Horford is a substantial upgrade. 

After being picked by zero GMs to win the Eastern Conference last year, 24 percent of respondents this season think the Sixers will be conference champions, with 76 percent taking the Bucks. 

Embiid is … flying under the radar? 

Embiid’s talents are widely recognized across the league, without a doubt. He finished second in the voting for best center in the NBA, behind Nikola Jokic and ahead of Anthony Davis.

That said, there were a couple of categories in which Embiid was perhaps overlooked. Embiid was not one of the six players to receive votes as best defensive player in the league, or one of the eight picked as MVP. 

More puzzlingly, no GM selected him as the league’s best international player. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the clear, uncontroversial winner with 86 percent of the vote. It’s a bit odd, though, that reigning Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic got 7 percent while the Cameroonian Embiid, an All-Star starter the past two seasons, got none. Simmons, a native of Australia, was also passed over again.

The Sixers aren’t so ‘young’ anymore  

The Sixers aged dramatically over the past year, at least judging by these survey results. 

They dropped from receiving 47 percent of votes for most promising young core to 7 percent this season, behind the Pelicans, Nuggets, Hawks and Kings. While Embiid and Simmons are indeed merely a year older, Richardson is 26 years old and Harris 27, the perception appears to be that the Sixers are no longer a youthful team on the verge of title contention — they’ve hit the next stage, or so it seems. 

No lone star  

Embiid was the Sixers player who got the most individual attention. Simmons and Harris received no votes of any sort, while Richardson showed up in the “also receiving votes” category for the question of the most underrated player acquisition this offseason. Horford received votes for the most surprising offseason acquisition and best basketball IQ. 

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