Matchups, adjustments and more to watch in Sixers' rematch vs. West's top team

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First place in the Eastern Conference against first place in the West. 

Not a bad way for the Sixers to wrap up the first half of a highly abnormal NBA season, right?

“Hopefully it’s a precursor to the end of the year,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said with a laugh Monday night. “You know what I mean? If we continue to play and they continue to play, I think we would all be thrilled to death if we played a third time. That would mean we’re all in the right place. We had a heck of a game there. We need to try to return the favor.”

If the Sixers win Wednesday against the 27-8 Jazz, there’s no doubt they’ll enter the All-Star break at the top of the East. If they lose, their spot in the standings will depend on the result of a matchup between the second-place Nets and the Rockets. 

It won’t be a definitive statement on whether the team is a true contender, but the last Sixers game at Wells Fargo Center before fans return is clearly more meaningful than a typical regular-season matchup. Let’s preview a few things to watch: 

An encore from Simmons? 

Ben Simmons’ 42-point performance in the Sixers’ Feb. 15 loss in Utah was partially attributable to the circumstances. With Embiid sidelined by back tightness, Simmons was mostly defended by Utah’s big men, a strategy he thought showed “a little bit of disrespect.”

Another career-high night would be surprising for Simmons, but that game hasn’t felt fluky. Over his five games since, he’s averaged 20.0 points with 129.9 points per 100 shot attempts, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s driven 12.6 times per game during that stretch, and his 8.2 points off drives per contest is almost three points higher than his season average, per NBA.com/Stats.  

It’s only five games, yes, but anyone who’s watched the Sixers lately has noticed Simmons consistently attacking the rim and looking for his own offense. We’ll see if he enters the All-Star break by continuing that trend. 

What to monitor in Embiid vs. Gobert matchup 

Though every game counts the same, certain matchups matter more than others to Joel Embiid, who scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds Monday on a sore left ankle in the Sixers' win over the Pacers.

“He’s a great player,” Embiid said of Myles Turner. “I have a lot of respect for him. I say this respectfully, but that’s a matchup that I’ve dominated since I got to the league. Great defender. He leads the league in blocks, should be up there when it comes to Defensive Player of the Year. That’s also one of my goals, to be Defensive Player of the Year. You’ve got to take advantage of those matchups, especially if I have my eyes set on being the Defensive Player of the Year.”

Rudy Gobert is vying for a third Defensive Player of the Year award. In all likelihood, he’ll be the primary defender against Embiid, who’s snapped a three-game mini-slump by scoring 66 points on 23-for-39 shooting over his last two games.

Two schematic possibilities to watch for are Rivers using Embiid in “Delay” actions and involving him more than usual as a ball screener. The purpose of the “Delay” actions, which feature Embiid handling the ball at the top of the key, would be drawing an excellent rim protector in Gobert away from his preferred territory. Pick-and-rolls with Simmons and Embiid could lead to some situations in which Gobert has to guard Simmons, or at least deal with him as a ball handler. Though Simmons did most of his damage in Utah against players besides Gobert, it’s apparent the Sixers like that matchup. 

A final area to watch with Embiid is the Sixers’ spacing and cutting around him when the Jazz send help in the post. Embiid had five assists against Indiana, two of which came on nearly identical second-quarter plays where Matisse Thybulle cut to the middle and Embiid fired a skip pass to an open Furkan Korkmaz. The balance between simplifying Embiid’s post outlets and moving smartly around him is sometimes tricky to find, but the Sixers are coming off a game where they fared well on that front. 

“It’s going to be good,” Embiid said Monday. “Obviously we’re at full strength. Hopefully my ankle gets better as the days go on. They’re a great team. They’re dominating the league right now, so it would be a great win to go into the break. Like I said, great team, and it’s going to give us a lot of confidence if we can go out there and win.”

Containing Clarkson 

The Sixers’ bench would’ve outscored Utah’s by eight points when the teams first met if Jordan Clarkson hadn’t played. Alas, Clarkson played and scored 40 points. His eight three-pointers matched the Sixers’ team total.

Shake Milton was out that evening with a left ankle sprain, but he’ll have a key role Wednesday. Milton and Korkmaz combined for 45 points and six assists against the Pacers.

“It’s what we need,” Rivers said. “We’re still working with that group, trying to figure out what we can run that fits us the best. We ran some good stuff. I think our guys saw it, they kept running it, they kept finding each other. It’s nice. When those two play well off our bench, we’re pretty tough.”

A similar dual effort would be great for the Sixers, though limiting Clarkson needs to be a high priority. The team might want to give Thybulle more time on the Sixth Man of the Year favorite after Clarkson scored only four points on 2-for-5 shooting when guarded by Thybulle in the first Sixers-Jazz matchup. 

Those numbers aren’t very significant on their own, but Thybulle has generally been the Sixers’ best bet outside of Simmons to defend dangerous perimeter scorers. Rivers’ options will obviously expand if Tobias Harris (questionable with a right knee contusion) is available.

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