Game Preview | Once Again, January Yields Promising Results

by Brian Seltzer Reporter

Scene Setter:

It’s a new season, with a noticeably different cast, but the vibes right now certainly feel the familiar.

Heading into the 2017-2018 campaign, when the 76ers pinned their hopes on what ultimately could be, a common point of reference was this very same time a year ago.

Triggered by a resilient victory at Denver in their final appearance of 2016, the Sixers went on to win 10 of their next 13 games for a hope-inspiring January surge. With Joel Embiid healthy, and - at that point - playing the most dominant basketball of his breakout rookie season, the team’s remaining pieces fell into place. Everything seemed to click.

In the here and now, here the Sixers are, once again.

It’s January, and the prospects are promising. Entering the home stretch of the month, the club has rattled off three wins in a row, all against opponents that, at tip-off, had been ahead of the Sixers in the Eastern Conference.

Coincidentally enough, the Sixers began to emerge from a 2-10 funk this past December with yet another gritty December 30th road victory over the Nuggets (the same date as the Denver win in 2016). Since then, the Sixers have prevailed in seven of their last eight outings, and vaulted into seventh-place in the East.

Comparing this January to the previous one, two primary parallels stand out. First, the Sixers’ defense has been among the NBA’s best.

“Last January, we were real maniacal on defense, we had that chemistry going,” Robert Covington recalled over the weekend. “This January has been pretty much the same.”

The swing man is spot on.

As of Monday morning, the Sixers’ 95.9 January defensive rating ranked second in the league only to that of the the Boston Celtics (93.6). Last January, in which the Sixers were 10-5 overall, their defensive rating was 103.1, tied for third-best.

Not unrelated to the defensive success the Sixers have been enjoying through the first three weeks of January is that Joel Embiid has been readily available. 

Much like when the calendar flipped from 2016 to 2017, the big man seems to be rounding into peak form. His play, Brett Brown noted Saturday before Embiid powered his way to 29 points and 9 rebounds to help the Sixers beat Milwaukee, is becoming increasingly “fluid.”

Brown acknowledged that while several factors can be attributed to the Sixers’ present spike, the most obvious of all can’t be denied.

“It’s health,” Brown said. “It’s Joel Embiid, and it’s health.

“I think that health is the number one thing, and now trying to get our group healthy and move it forward, and grow it through that lens is always what’s on my mind.”

With Embiid steadily progressing to the point where he’s now a more consistent practice participant, Brown said the Sixers have been feeling “whole” lately, “like you actually have a [complete] team.”

Revisit the start of the season, and the fifth-year head coach never thought he’d be able to use the 7-footer this extensively.  Dating back to the week after Thanksgiving, Embiid has averaged 33.6 minutes per game.

“I hope everybody writes something about how good our medical staff has been to put him in position to be an All-Star,” Brown said. “They deserve a hell of a lot of credit.”

The willing buy-in from Embiid himself, of course, has also been pivotal.

“He is so committed to doing this,” said Brown, referring to the blueprint the Sixers’ medical team has created for Embiid. “This isn’t pulling teeth. He understands completely that his health and his fitness is everything. That is tremendous leadership and tremendous professionalism, and [I’m not] a cheerleading coach. He’s the master of his own ship, and he’s headed in the right direction.”

And bringing the Sixers with him, too.

Collectively, Brown’s group has responded in encouraging fashion since its mid-December dip, a crossroads that Brown called a “minor defining moment.” He’s challenged the Sixers to reclaim their identity in January, just like last season, and they’ve answered accordingly.

“We’ve regrouped and revamped ourselves after that stretch,” said Covington. “We kind of got after it. We’ve done a good job of bouncing back. We’re locked in.”

Opponent Outlook:

All in all, despite a defeat Saturday at New Orleans, last week was one of the better ones in a while for the Memphis Grizzlies, which, at 16-29, occupy the 12th-place position in the Western Conference. The Grizz had won three in a row, and four out of five before bowing to the Pelicans, 111-104. Monday will mark the Sixers’ lone visit this season to FedEx Forum, where Memphis, currently without Mike Conley (left heel) and Chandler Parsons (right knee soreness), has posted four consecutive victories.

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