I was a guest of Rhea Hughes on Lunch Break today as we discuss all of the wild moves the Eagles have made since yesterday morning. We also touch on Vance Worley and the Phillies trade deadline and highlight some of the brilliant comments by humans on the Internet, specifically Facebook.
The Sixers are clicking just in time to face their toughest competition in over a month. The Raptors (28-13) come to Philadelphia as the Sixers have won six of their last eight games by holding one another accountable and taking each outing step-by-step.
“You feel like the group is coming together,” Brett Brown said. “You feel like all the work that we have put in is starting to pay dividends in relation to a solid foundation.”
The Raptors sit second in the Eastern Conference, just one and a half games behind the Cavaliers. The last time they met, the Raptors beat the Sixers 123-114 on Dec. 14 at the Wells Fargo Center.
A lot has changed since then, especially the rotations. Brown started Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor together against the Raptors, an experiment that waned out after six games. The Sixers have found a formula to winning with an established starting lineup and a consistent second unit, with the added experience of Gerald Henderson and Nerlens Noel. They will be tested Wednesday as both Joel Embiid (illness) and T.J. McConnell (wrist) are questionable.
“When you look at this team, it’s a lot of talent but we didn’t play as a team,” Ilyasova said of the start of the season. “Now we come together. I think it’s all about the chemistry, we trust each other.”
The Sixers are looking to carry over the momentum of a 113-104 victory over the Bucks in Milwaukee on Monday. They got a test of All-Star caliber talent against Giannis Antetokounmpo, whom they held to two points in the second half. The Sixers will have their hands full with the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry (22.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.2 assists) and DeMar DeRozan (28.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists).
One key to countering talent like that placing an importance on accountability. The players are not letting each other off the hook for mistakes on the court, regardless of who the opponent is.
“I could see it over the past couple weeks, guys coming out here and being more vocal on both ends of the court,” Noel said. “If one guy messes up, you’ve got to let him know so it won’t be a recurring thing. With that, guys are taking steps in the right direction, both leadership roles because everybody on this team can be a leader in their own way.”
The Raptors come in on a four-game winning streak.
Sixers vs. Raptors
7 p.m. - CSN/CSNPhilly.com/streaming live on the NBCSports App
The Sixers (13-26) go for their second straight win and sixth in eight games as the Toronto Raptors (28-13) visit the Wells Fargo Center for the third of four meetings between the teams this season.
Here's what to look for in the Wednesday night duel:
1. Rollin' in the New Year
What a difference a year makes.
After an abysmal 2016, the Sixers look like a whole different team in 2017, winning five of their last seven games. While that run includes a win over the hapless Nets, it also features wins over a few playoff contenders, including the Hornets and the latest win over the Bucks.
Part of the Sixers' roll has been, of course, because of Joel Embiid. The center's highlight-laden January has seen an increase in his production. In six games this month, he averages 22.5 points and 9.2 rebounds to go with 2.3 assists, 2.5 blocks and one steal per game. In his last two games, the aforementioned wins over the Hornets and Bucks, he has dominated by getting to the free throw line 32 times, making 25 of his attempts.
One issue for the Sixers winning ways is Embiid's workload. The team plays four sets of back-to-backs in its next 10 games, meaning Embiid will likely sit at least four times in the next few weeks.
Beyond Embiid, the Sixers' bench has been rolling thanks to some continuity. Nerlens Noel, who missed the win in Milwaukee with a sprained ankle, has nine points and 5.8 rebounds a game during the run. Dario Saric has averaged 11.1 points and has made 12 threes in the last five games.
The Raptors are the Sixers' biggest test since at least the Celtics game on Jan. 6, if not since the last Sixers-Raptors clash in mid-December. The Raptors have won both meetings this season by a combined 36 points. Toronto also comes in just as hot as the Sixers, having won four straight -- although Wednesday will be the second part of a back-to-back.
2. An All-Star worthy backcourt
The reason why the Raptors are such tough matchup for the Sixers begins with their vaunted backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, both of whom will likely make their third All-Star appearance in February.
DeRozan has cooled off a bit since his torrid league-leading scoring start, but the two-guard is putting up one of the best offensive seasons in Raptors history. With 36 points (not to mention 11 rebounds and six assists) on Tuesday night, DeRozan became the second player in Raptors history with 20 30-point games in one season.
The high-volume shooter makes over 21 field goal attempts a game, almost all of which are inside the three-point arc. He averages 28.1 points, tied for fifth-best in the NBA, by burying a steady stream of mid-range jumpers and by getting to the free-throw line, where he shoots 84.5 percent.
Lowry, who didn't play on Tuesday in order to rest, is the yin to DeRozan's yang. The former Villanova point guard has been electric this year from three, shooting a career-best 44.4 percent. He also takes a lot of shots (14.7 per game) but also dishes the ball out well, averaging 7.2 assists. Some of the Raptors' best units have been Lowry with Toronto's bench players as the veteran point guard facilitates the offense and shows off the defense that made him a key part of Team USA's gold medal in 2016.
Lowry not playing on Tuesday likely had to do with the large load that he shoulders for the Raptors. He averages a career-high 37.2 minutes per game and has played at least 40 minutes 12 times this year, including four times this month. The Raptors hope to compete for the No. 1 overall seed (they're 1.5 games behind the Cavaliers), so Lowry may not get the chance to rest that often in the second half of the year.
3. Getting defensive
The challenge for the Sixers' defense goes well beyond DeRozan and Lowry. The Raptors' full offense is not fun for any team to oppose. In fact, according to advanced statistics, Toronto -- not the high-flying Golden State Warriors -- are No. 1 in offensive efficiency.
As one could guess with a team led by DeRozan, its No. 1 ranking isn't because of three-point shooting. Like their leading scorer, the Raptors are one of the best teams in the league of getting to the free-throw line. That could be bad news for Embiid if he plays because he's been averaging north of four fouls a game in his last 10.
While the Raptors are solid at getting to the free-throw line and inside the arc, they do have some deficiencies. A big one is rebounding. They have a relatively high offensive rebounding rate, but they're near the bottom in the league in allowing opponents to pick up offensive rebounds.
If the Sixers to make tonight's game competitive, they'll need a collective team effort on the glass against a front-line devoid of two potential starters, Jared Sullinger and Patrick Patterson.
Beyond their big two, the Raptors have a few other scoring options. Cory Joseph scored 33 in place of Lowry last night in Brooklyn while Terrence Ross averages over 10 points a game off the bench. Small forward DeMarre Carroll is finally healthy and bring a solid three-point shot along with his trademark defense.
T.J. McConnell (right wrist) and Embiid (flu) are questionable for the game (see story). Ben Simmons (foot) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) are out for the Sixers.
Sullinger (foot), Patterson (knee) and Delon Wright (shoulder) are out for the Raptors.
5. This and that
• The Raptors have won 14 straight against the Sixers. Their last loss to Philly came on Jan. 18, 2013, exactly four years ago.
• With McConnell questionable, Chasson Randle may see more of an opportunity (see full story) while nearing the end of his 10-day contract signed on Jan. 10. Randle impressed in 16 minutes off the bench vs. the Bucks, scoring 10 points while draining two threes. He also committed five fouls in the process.
• The matchup with the Raptors begins a four-game stretch against teams that made the playoffs last season, culminating in a game against the Clippers next Tuesday. Luckily for the Sixers, only one of the games (Atlanta on Saturday) is on the road and the Clippers are missing two of their top players with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out.