Saturday’s matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers will be a good test for the 76ers, especially reserves Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis.
The two were acquired before the Feb. 7 trade deadline to help a dismal perimeter-defensive squad. The hope is that Ennis, a former Houston Rocket, and former Orlando Magic Simmons would shore things in time for the playoffs.
“If there are opportunities to study more and learn more, there’s none more prominent than probably tomorrow at 1 [p.m.],” Sixers coach Brett Brown said following Friday’s practice. “We will learn more and especially about those two [Simmons and Ennis] in a real sense tomorrow.”
That’s because in the Blazers (35-23), the Sixers (38-21) face one of the league’s top back-court tandems in point guard Damian Lillard and shooting guard C.J. McCollum. As reserves, Simmons, a shooting guard, and Ennis, a small forward, won’t have to task of guarding them from the start. However, they will likely be assigned to defend them once in the game.
And that’s going to a tough task.
Lillard is arguably one of the most underrated players in the NBA despite being a four-time All-Star. The seventh-year veteran would receive more accolades and be more of a household name if he played in a larger market.
He’s ranked 10th in the league in scoring at 26.1 points per game. Lillard also averages 6.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds.
The Oakland native has scored 30 points in each of his last two visits to Philadelphia. He also shot a combined 8-for-20 on three-pointers (40 percent) in those games.
McCollum, a Lehigh graduate, also dominates the Sixers.
He averaged 34.5 points while shooting 50 percent on three-pointers in his last two game against the Sixers. The Ohio native had 35 points while making 4 of 7 three-pointers in the teams’ previous meeting, a 34-point drubbing by the Blazers on Dec. 30 in Portland. The Sixers were without All-Star center Joel Embiid, who will also miss Saturday’s game with tendinitis in his left knee.
For the season, McCollum is averaging 21.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
“Those two guards are completely dynamic,” Brown said. “I get drowned by different math and stats and analytics and sometimes I listen and sometimes you here it so often. One the stats that came over with my analysis this morning that I did listen to is evidently they are the No. 1 team in the NBA in pick-and-roll efficiency.”
In addition to trying to contain Lillard and McCollum, the Sixers must find a way to stop center Jusuf Nurkic. This will mark the second of three straight games Embiid will miss before being reevaluated. As a result, Boban Marjanovic, Embiid’s normal backup, will draw the assignment.
Marjanovic had 19 points and 12 rebounds while starting in Thursday’s 106-102 victory over the Miami Heat. However, Nurkic is expected to put up a stiffer fight than Miami’s Hassan Whiteside.
Nurkic had 27 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in Thursday’s 113-99 victory over the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center.
The Bosnian has recorded double-doubles in three of his last four games against the Sixers. He’s averaged 19.3 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.5 blocks in those four games.
“It’s a hard matchup for us tomorrow,” Marjanovic said of a Blazers squad averaging 117.5 points over their last 10 games. “But we do our thing to win every single game.”
Sixers rookie Zhaire Smith participated in Friday’s practice. The shooting guard has yet to play in a game.
He was expected to return in December after being sidelined with an acute Jones fracture in his left foot. However, he remained out due to the negative effects from an allergic reaction to something he ate back in September.
Meanwhile, veteran center Amir Johnson played for the Sixers’ NBA G-League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats Friday night. The squad hosted the Maine Red Claws at the 76ers Arena in Wilmington, Del. He will rejoin the Sixers for the Blazers.