Undermanned Sixers brace for challenging West Coast road trip

Undermanned Sixers brace for challenging West Coast road trip

CAMDEN, N.J. -- The Sixers will head to the West Coast on an overloaded schedule with an undermanned lineup. The team will play four games in six days, including back-to-backs in Los Angeles and a matchup against the Warriors in Oakland. 

The trip, though, is just the start of a jam-packed schedule in which the Sixers are going up against playoff- and championship-caliber teams. 

"I look at it very clearly in my eyes," Brett Brown said before practice on Monday. "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.

"You've got 11 games out of 13 (actually 11 of 14) that are on the road. Eight of those 13 are playoff teams. Two of those are last year's finalists that played in the championship. We have a team that isn't like the team we had in January. We've navigated post-All-Star breaks with trades and injuries many times. We are experienced dealing with this environment."

It still remains to be seen who be will available for the upcoming trip. Jahlil Okafor (right knee soreness) is listed as questionable for Thursday against the Trail Blazers. He did not practice on Tuesday and received treatment. Brown expects to have Okafor back at some point out West after missing the last two games.

"My gut feel is that we will see him be on a court on this road trip," Brown said.

Starting-center-of-the-moment Richaun Holmes (hamstring) and Gerald Henderson (hip) are listed as probable for Thursday. Joel Embiid (out for the season, knee) is slated to join the team in Los Angeles. 

And so the Sixers will hit the road with a pared-down roster of reserves-turned-starters and recently acquired D-League call-ups. 

"This is challenging," Brown said. "You could use other words, but let's stick with that one. This is challenging. It's my job as the head coach to take these guys and to help them get better, to keep a locker room together, to play with a style that doesn't deviate with how we want to grow the program."

Brown sees the obstacles of this season as different than those of years past. He points to the impending returns of Embiid and Ben Simmons, the development of those like Robert Covington and Dario Saric, as well as the upcoming draft and salary cap space for free agency. 

He is eyeing the growth of each player for the remainder of the season. Brown has asked each player to identify areas they want to improve upon before the 82nd game concludes. 

"We will compete," Brown said. "We will stay together. I'm not going to lose my mind. I will keep this thing whole. I will keep it together. It'll retain a realness to it, but it's that. With that, becomes a real sort of clear reality of where we are, with the schedule, with the team, with what's around the corner with drafts and summer, with the maintenance of our injured players. All those things are on my mind as we go through what's about to happen until April the 12th." 

At the start of Tuesday's practice, Simmons went through non-contact drills as he has done before this season. Watch him here:

Jerryd Bayless is in New York City on Tuesday to have the cast on his left wrist removed. He suffered a ligament injury during training camp and underwent season-ending surgery in December.

Sixers Talk podcast: Hopefully Charles Barkley is wrong about Joel Embiid, Sixers

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Sixers Talk podcast: Hopefully Charles Barkley is wrong about Joel Embiid, Sixers

On the latest Sixers Talk podcast presented by Wilmington University, Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick discuss Charles Barkley's criticism of the Sixers and Joel Embiid, compare the Sixers to the Clippers and more.

• Does Charles Barkley have a point or this all just sensationalism?

• The Sixers have new pieces and it's leading to a clunky fit. What is the solution?

• Just a little more Matisse Thybulle love.

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.

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To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question for Joel Embiid

In years past, it was a common occurrence for Joel Embiid to make a big play and elicit cheers from a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. He’d then raise his arms, imploring the crowd to get louder — and they’d oblige.

This kind of moment happened in Tuesday night’s 97-92 win in a slugfest against the Nuggets (see observations).

With Denver having gone on a run to cut a double-digit deficit to two, the Sixers made a push late in the third. As the clock was winding down, Embiid grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus shot while he was being fouled.

Embiid went out to center court, raised his arms and the fans went nuts.

Moments like this haven’t been as frequent this year. Not because Embiid hasn’t had spectacular moments, but because he’s trying to be even-keeled.

I haven't done it enough all season,” Embiid said. “I have not been having fun like usual. … It goes back to with me being mature. And one of the biggest parts of my game is just having fun and by having fun is talking trash, but that part, that's kind of been cut. I just need to be myself and I guess just do whatever I want. Because when I'm having fun, I dominate. But this year, I don't know, I can probably count on one hand how many times I've done it. Last year was basically a reaction that I love it. They get me going. They understand me, I do understand them. So, I need to start doing it again because that's how I'm gonna dominate.

Embiid continues to be his dominant self on the defensive end — in case some national pundits forgot that there are two ends to a basketball court. He’s No. 1 in the NBA in terms of defensive rating (95.3) and anchored the defense that held the Nuggets to just 92 points.

With Jimmy Butler gone, it’s also been Embiid who’s been tasked with being the team’s go-to scorer in the fourth quarter. Going to a post player late in games is not something a ton of teams do. Then again, most teams don’t have a big man as physically gifted as Embiid.

Brett Brown has tried to do different things here and there — run isos for Tobias Harris or pick-and-rolls with Ben Simmons. Ultimately, though, Brown said his offense still runs through his “crown jewel.”

Embiid, who almost sounded like a player that had just lost, admitted that he’s still adjusting to his late-game role and also to the idea of drawing attention to free up his teammates.

“Not good enough,” Embiid said when asked about his late-game scoring. “Still getting used to [it]. The whole season I've been trying to adjust. Obviously, it's not the same as last year. It's completely different. So the adjustment has been hard but I'm gonna do whatever I'm asked to every single night. Like I keep mentioning, even if it's being a ball screener or just rebound the ball or take three shots — I'll do that. Whatever they ask me to do.”

It’s been a peculiar season for Embiid. If you were to just look at his scoring numbers, they’re way down. He’s averaging just 21.9 points, down from his 27.5 mark last season. A lot of that is the result of more aggressive double teams and a new supporting cast.

He also just seems a little off as far as his personality goes — and his words Tuesday kind of confirmed that. The only game where he seemed to be his usual plucky self was back on Oct. 30 against the Timberwolves. Of course, that’s the game where he got into a scuffle with Karl-Anthony Towns, shadowboxed to the crowd, got into a profanity-laced Instagram war with Towns, and got suspended for two games.

After that incident, Embiid vowed to never get suspended again. It’s a respectable cause, to be sure, but it seems like it’s led the 25-year-old into an existential crisis.

I'm not trying to be a distraction to the team," Embiid said. "The fight happened and we had good momentum and from there, we just kind of lost it. We lost a couple of games. So, I'm not trying to be a distraction, but that's just part of my game. And I feel like me losing that part, I think it's kind of taken a toll on my game. So it just goes back to me. Sometimes I might be childish and like I said, do whatever I want to, but then again, I care about winning. Everybody knows that. I'll do whatever it takes to win. I care about my teammates, I care about the organization, I care about being a role model. Everybody told me that I need to be — from fans to everybody else — I gotta be mature, so I'm doing it and I don't think it's working but I'm gonna keep doing it.

To be mature, or to be dominant, that is the question.

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