SITE MANAGER’S NOTE - This preview was written last night with the injury report stating Embiid would play in this game. Embiid was ruled out around 10 AM CT Monday for rest by the 76ers. Aside from the Injury Report and the Projected Starters, this preview will not be edited...because there is no time. Thank you for your understanding.
WHEN: 6:00 PM CT
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: Bally Sports Southeast/92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Dillon Brooks (Out, ankle), Tyus Jones (Questionable, Health and Safety Protocols)
PHILADELPHIA: Ben Simmons (Out, personal), Shake Milton (Out, back), Furkan Korkmaz (Questionable, knee), Joel Embiid (Out, rest)
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP:
MEMPHIS: Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Ziaire Williams, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams
PHILADELPHIA: Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond
Two teams playing pretty solid basketball recently while being led by two MVP candidates square off tonight in Philadelphia.
Joel Embiid is putting forth a career year for the 76ers. He is a major threat from three (better than 36% at 3.4 attempts) and is also facilitating offense (4.4 assists per game) better than ever before. He has maintained his defensive effectiveness while taking on an even larger brunt of the Philly offensive responsibility with Ben Simmons out. If it were not for Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid would be the undisputed best big man in the entire NBA. The seven foot tall, 280 pound fleet of foot Embiid can do just about everything on the floor - and is playing a more cerebral style than ever before.
On the other end of the benches will be Ja Morant, the current #5 favorite to be name NBA MVP. That’s something that has never - EVER - been written or said about a Memphis Grizzlies basketball player before. But here we are, once again acknowledging the greatness that is Morant in this moment. The 22-year-old Morant is thriving, shooting a terrific 65% at the rim (86th percentile per Cleaning the Glass) while shooting a remarkably better 37% from beyond the arc (74th percentile, which is very good, but even better when you consider how he was in the 5th percentile last season). The handle, the athleticism, the willingness to make the right play beyond just looking for his offense (although more often than not his shot IS the right play) - he’s borderline unguardable right now.
When tipoff comes, there’s a decent chance these two are the reigning Players of the Week for their respective conferences. This is a heavyweight showdown, fitting for the city where the story of Rocky Balboa became part of their fabric.
This is going to be fun. Keys to the game.
Slow Those Beyond Embiid
The last time these two teams met - a 126-91 thrashing victory for Memphis - Joel Embiid was not in the lineup (nor was Ja Morant). Embiid is playing in this game more than likely, and he is going to get his. He’s too quick for Steven Adams, too big for Jaren Jackson Jr. and the other Memphis front court players. He is going to find success. Beyond Embiid is where the effort must really be prioritized. In that Grizzlies December win the likes of Tyrese Maxey (23 points) went off, taking advantage of increased scoring chances. With “The Process” in the lineup, he naturally will make the guys lined up with him better, just as Morant does for Memphis. Maxey, Tobias Harris, Andre Drummond off the bench - there are pieces in place that can do damage for Philly. Just not many of them, especially if Furkan Korkmaz is out in addition to Shake Melton.
It’s the main reason some (this writer included) find it hard to believe Philly GM Daryl Morey won’t trade Simmons before next week’s deadline. Embiid is an All-NBA caliber talent in his prime. Is he really going to waste a year of that? Perhaps. But this game could be an argument for why he shouldn’t if the deeper Memphis Grizzlies can slow the key cogs alongside the machine that is Embiid.
Get Ja off-ball chances
Another game, another time where the opposition will have a larger wing that is capable of defending Ja Morant effectively. It hasn’t mattered of late - Ja is just too good right now - but the length of Matisse Thybulle (6’11” wingspan) at 6’5” could create issues. The 2nd Team All-Defense player last season has been 3rd, 1st, and 4th in the NBA in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (per basketball-reference.com) over the first three seasons of his NBA career. He has the lateral quickness, the timely ability to attack dribble penetration and passing lanes, and overall size to make even the greatest offensive weapons work especially hard for decent looks at the rim.
Fortunately for the Grizzlies, Morant is a willing passer. And if Thybulle draws the Ja assignment then that means Tyrese Maxey or Seth Curry on Desmond Bane, which...will not end well for either of those players. But Memphis has to get Morant off of the ball where they can and have him run screens both on the perimeter and up and down the baseline. Basic sets in the pick and roll (outside of potential switching mismatches) will not be as impactful if Ja is dealing with Thybulle on him initially with the big playing coverage behind being Joel Embiid or Andre Drummond. Finding lanes from different spots on the floor, even for just 5 or so extra possessions, will allow for him to keep his currently MVP-level offensive rhythm.
As of this writing the 76ers are favored by 3.5 points. That seems about right - Embiid is playing just as well as Morant, and while Memphis has won 3 in a row and 4 of their last 5 Philadelphia has won 4 in a row as well as 4 of their last 5. This isn’t the Wizards that the Grizzlies are running in to - even without Simmons, when the Sixers are playing this way with Embiid as the catalyst they can compete with anyone.
As alluded to before, however, the depth of the Grizzlies is superior to that of the 76ers. Maybe this is the game that Morey sees the light. Expect Philly to lead throughout a majority of the game, only for the numbers of the Grizzlies (and the greatness of Morant) to pull away late. Embiid needs help. Morant has it.
Memphis 113, Philadelphia 111