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Game Preview: Sixers at Suns — Embiid, Harden vs. Ayton, Booker, Paul

West-leading Suns host East-leading 76ers

Phoenix Suns v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

What: Philadelphia 76ers (47-28, 1st in East) at Phoenix Suns (60-14, 1st in West)

When: 3:00 PM AZ / Pacific time

Where: Footprint Center, Phoenix, AZ

Watch: Bally Sports Arizona

Listen: 98.7 FM

Betting Line: DraftKings has the Suns a 3.5 point favorite in this one


For the second time this season, the West-leading Suns are facing the East’s top seed. The first time, the Suns rocked the Miami Heat. This time? This time it’s the Sixers and we’ll see in a few hours.

The Phoenix Suns are on a 7-game winning streak, including wins over the Bulls, Wolves and Nuggets in the past week.

The Philadelphia 76ers are on a 3-game winning streak (and won 5 of last 7) with wins over the Cavaliers, Mavericks and Heat in that time.

The Sixers are loaded now, with Joel Embiid and James Harden, and have some of the best odds to make the Finals, so there’s a chance that today’s matchup is a Finals preview.


Probable Starting Lineups

Both teams are pretty healthy, at least in their starting lineups.

  • The Suns will have their preferred starting lineup today for only the 34th time in 75 possible games. They are 27-6 with this lineup.
  • The Sixers will have their preferred starting lineup, including recently acquired James Harden, for the 14th time this season. They are 10-3 with this lineup.

Injured/Out

Suns: Cameron Johnson (thigh) is OUT, JaVale McGee (non-COVID illness) is OUT, plus Dario and Frank (knees).

76ers: No rotation players out


Sixers Update

James Harden is getting fully integrated with the Sixers now, and they’re pretty healthy going into the stretch run. They’ve taken over the top seed in the conference from the suddenly-reeling Heat.

The Sixers are 10-3 with this starting lineup, and now have the full complement coming off the bench in Georges Niang, Danny Green, Andre Drummond DeAndre Jordan and Furkan Korkmaz the top guys. Niang has shot very well this year, and Green is a proven playoff competitor.

The Suns last played the Sixers before James Harden came to town, so he adds a whole new wrinkle to the equation.

Joel Embiid is All-World this year and might win the MVP award. Suns center Deandre Ayton will have his hands full against the big guy. Embiid once laughed off Ayton, saying “don’t compare him to me. I play defense.”

We’ll see how it goes today.

Suns Update

With 60 wins in the books and 8 games remaining on the regular season schedule before the playoffs start, the Suns are closing in on their best record in franchise history (62-20, twice).

When their next win, the Suns would improve their win total by 10 from the previous season for a third-straight year (from 19 to 34 to 51 to 61), a feat only the Boston Celtics accomplished from 1970-71 to 1972-73.

I continue to get mind-blown every time I look at the leader boards on team records. The Suns are the BEST in the NBA at home (30-8), on the road (30-6), against the West (36-9), against the East (24-5), decided by 3 points or less (6-2), in the clutch (30-6), decided by 10+ points (34-8), vs. teams .500 and above (26-10), vs. teams below .500 (34-4), leading after three quarters (44-0), behind after three quarters (16-13), and so on and so forth.

The Suns offense is absolutely humming lately. They have scored 125+ points in seven straight games, a franchise record and the longest such streak in the NBA since... the 1988-1989 Denver Nuggets, led by Doug Moe. That’s 33 years ago, folks. If the Suns score 125+ again today, you have to go back 40 years for such a streak (1982-83 Nuggets).

For the season, the Suns are now 2nd in offensive rating, 3rd in defensive rating and have the best net point differential in the league.

What the Suns want now is the playoffs. And they want to spend the next 2-3 weeks prepping, not resting.

You’d think a team that plays are hard as the Suns would want to rest up ahead of a long playoff run — hopefully 2+ months — but these Suns want nothing to do with rest because they feel like they’ve already gotten all the rest they need.

“Hell no. Hell no,” center Deandre Ayton said after practice yesterday. “We working on us. When it comes to that sit down and all that. I mean, dude, how many times do you want us to sit down? D-Book was out, I was out four times, C was out, COVID, sickness — how many times you want us to be out? We tired of sitting down. I don’t want to sit down anymore. I’m tired of it. We feel like we got our rest.”

Ayton missed four different stints of games this year (ankle, COVID, knee, non-COVID illness), costing him six weeks of playing time. Devin Booker has missed about three weeks over two different stints (hamstring, COVID). Chris Paul has missed a month (thumb). Jae Crowder missed a few weeks (COVID, wrist). Top backups Cameron Payne and Cameron Johnson have also missed 3+ weeks throughout the season, while JaVale McGee has missed a couple weeks too.

So you can understand why Ayton laughed off the idea of needing more rest. What can the Suns work on then, with the top seed already locked up?

“Finishing off this thing strong,” Ayton said. “Working on coverages that we might need against teams when we see them in the playoffs and try to sustain certain things that might be new for us in the playoffs as well. But these eight games, (we’re) gonna take advantage of these things and get ready fo’ sho’.”

Other Suns have expressed the same sentiments, on down the line from Paul to Booker to Torrey Craig, who said out loud what they really want: “Trying to get 68 wins, man!”

So head coach Monty Williams and his coaching staff have to be the voices of reason. You don’t want to see players get hurt in a meaningless game, costing them playoff health. But you also don’t want them to lose their mojo from sitting out.

Plus, the play-in tournament gives the Suns a week off between game 82 of the regular season and game 1 of the playoffs, anyway. There’s not even any travel involved, as both are home games.

Expect the Suns to play today’s game with the same vigor as every other game they’ve played this season.


Prediction

Suns win another one. DraftKings has the Suns a 3.5 point favorite in this one, but I think it’s going to be a much wider margin.

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