The 20-10 Sixers are in Tampa Bay for a two-game mini-series against the 15-15 Toronto Raptors, one oddity of a season played during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are the essentials for Sunday’s game:
- When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6 p.m.
- Where: Amalie Arena
- Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
- Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the MyTeams app
And here are three storylines to watch:
Two returns for the Sixers
Ben Simmons and Shake Milton are both available to play are being listed as probable during the day with an illness and a left ankle sprain, respectively.
Milton will be a minutes restriction, according to head coach Doc Rivers, though he was unsure of the exact number. The Sixers’ bench was again poor without Milton against Chicago, being outscored 35-16 by the Bulls’ second unit.
Kyle Lowry is out because of a left thumb sprain. The Raptors actually haven't lost a game without the Villanova legend since Nov. 16, 2019 and are 5-0 when he sits this season. Another former Philadelphia college basketball star, St. Joseph’s product DeAndre’ Bembry, has started the last two Raptors games, victories over Milwaukee and Minnesota.
Embiid wants to stay steady
Before COVID-19 affected the daily rhythm of life in the NBA, Joel Embiid routinely chatted at his locker with Philadelphia basketball icon and Sixers executive advisor Sonny Hill. When asked Friday night after scoring a career-high 50 points and grabbing 17 rebounds whether he ever amazes himself, Embiid thought back to one nugget of wisdom from those discussions.
“No,” he said. “One thing the great Sonny Hill always told me — we used to talk all the time after games and before games; with COVID, that’s not possible — he used to always tell me, ‘Can’t get too high, can’t get too low.’ Sometimes I have big games. It just feels like the past 15 or 20 games, it’s been all big games and all big numbers. But, if that’s what’s needed from me, then I’m going to do it. ... I play to win, so whatever it takes. If it’s me having to set screens and get guys open, passing the ball and running the offense like I did last game when I had nine assists, that’s what I’m going to do. If it’s dominating and just scoring, that’s what I’m going to do.
“But I care more about the defensive end, and I’m pretty happy about what we did tonight, because defensively we haven’t been good the past couple games. My goal is to be the Defensive Player of the Year. I care more about that end and I’m happy that we did a better job tonight.”
Embiid is correct that every single game of his lately could be classified as “big.” The last time he scored under 25 points in a contest was Jan. 14. He’d posted 45 points, 16 rebounds and five steals the game prior, so it’s not as if he’s had anything remotely similar to a slump yet this season. While he might eventually have an off shooting night, his extensive variety offensively has thus far made him immune.
Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher should be Embiid’s main two frontcourt foes in Tampa Bay. He’ll look to capitalize on advantages in agility over Baynes and size over Boucher, one of the NBA’s most improved players this year. Expect Toronto to double team Embiid as much as possible.
A contrast in styles
The Sixers are second this season in mid-range shooting frequency and 29th in three-point frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. The Raptors essentially have the opposite shot profile, as they’re 28th in mid-range frequency and fourth in three-point frequency.
Since the Sixers have several very good mid-range shooters, with Embiid the best of the bunch, their low three-point volume hasn’t cost them too many games. Still, Sunday’s matchup against Toronto stands out as one in which the Sixers’ opponent could have a massive edge from beyond the arc.
Fred VanVleet, who had a 50-point game of his own this season (54 points on 23 field goal attempts against the Magic on Feb. 2), certainly won’t mind firing away. He’s averaged 20.0 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals in the first season of a four-year, $85 million extension.