Milton's injury will force Sixers to make adjustments against Blazers

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The 18-7 Sixers will search for a seventh win in eight games Thursday night when they play the 13-10 Trail Blazers. 

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

  • When: 10 p.m. EST with Sixers Pregame Live at 9 p.m. 
  • Where: Moda Center 
  • Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia 
  • Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the MyTeams app 

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Adjustments for Sixers’ bench

Shake Milton, the Sixers’ No. 3 scorer thus far, won't play against Portland because of a left ankle sprain. He appeared to sustain the injury on a drive with 2:12 left in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s win over the Kings.

Seth Curry also popped up on the injury report with a left ankle sprain, though he's available. Mike Scott remains out with right knee swelling, while two-way contract players Paul Reed and Rayjon Tucker are with the Delaware Blue Coats in the G League bubble. 

It would make sense for Tyrese Maxey to take some of Milton's typical minutes. Maxey didn’t play Tuesday night, the first time that’s happened all season. The Sixers’ second unit was very good without him, outscoring Sacramento’s by a 32-21 margin. Matisse Thybulle went scoreless but played strong defense late against De’Aaron Fox.

Portland’s CJ McCollum, Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic are sidelined by injuries. Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons are available after both missed the Blazers’ win over the Sixers last week. 

Kicking into a higher gear 

When the game is tight and they’ve needed stops, the Sixers have looked capable of elevating their defense to an elite level.

The statistics back up that perception: The Sixers have a 98.8 defensive rating in fourth quarters, per NBA.com/Stats, which is 3.5 points better than the second-place Raptors. The team’s plus-13.7 fourth-quarter net rating is also best in the league, four points higher than Toronto’s.

Simmons had a simple explanation for why the Sixers’ defense improved from the first to second half against the Kings. 

“Just focusing,” he said. “Literally just us focusing. When we’re focused and running our stuff and moving the ball, and then defensively when we’re locked in and communicating, I don’t really see too many teams beating us when we’re playing like that. When we’re executing plays, it’s tough. We look very good when we’re doing all of that.”

How long can this last? 

The Sixers still haven’t lost with their opening-night starting lineup. When Simmons, Curry, Tobias Harris, Simmons and Embiid all play together, they’re 14-0 and sport a plus-16.6 net rating, per Cleaning the Glass

Though it’s early in the year and playing during a pandemic has led to many games in which one or both teams are well below full strength, that undefeated mark is still significant validation that president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s offseason approach made a ton of sense. 

The Sixers have faced a relatively easy schedule, yes, but it’s undoubtedly a good sign that the team has won every single time its best lineup has suited up, even though that’s not likely to continue for an entire season. 

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