Bill Gorman, Sports Talk Philly Contributor
Note – this is the third in a four-part series to preview the 76ers return to NBA action, see part one here and part two here
We have now reached the second half of our 76ers Bubble Preview. The first two parts featured Indiana, San Antonio, Washington and Orlando. This week we will be taking on the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland Trail Blazers
Pre-stoppage record: 29-37 (ninth in West)
Key players: Damian Lillard (28.9 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 7.8 APG), CJ McCollum (22.5 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 4.3 APG), Carmelo Anthony (15.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 37.1 3P%)
This game is going to be a good test for the Sixers. With Portland currently sitting in the ninth seed in their conference they are going to be bringing their all, and they have multiple threats to throw at the Sixers.
Although the Sixers beat the Blazers when they faced off in the regular season, they will be seeing a much different Trail Blazers team this time around. In this time off the Trail Blazers were also able to get healthy, getting back starters Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic.
One key area the Sixers are going to have to focus on in this game in finishing possessions on defense. Although the Blazers are near the bottom in the league in points per game, they are just outside the top ten in offensive rebounding. The Sixers need to make sure they finish all their possessions on defense down to the rebound and don't allow the Blazers to pick up easy points.
A matchup like this will give the Sixers a chance to show just how strong they are on the defensive side of the ball. They are going to have their hands full on the perimeter with Lillard and McCollum, and will have to deal with the size of Nurkic and Collins in the frontcourt.
When fully healthy the Trail Blazers are a very good basketball team. Although it does it seem with where they sit right now but you cannot forget that Portland was in the conference finals last year. This game has a chance to have playoff vibes to it and will give the Sixers an opportunity to show that they can stop a superstar talent when it matters.
Pre-stoppage record: 26-39 (13th in West)
Key players: Devin Booker (26.1 pts /4.2 reb/6.6 ast), DeAndre Ayton (19/12/1.9), Ricky Rubio (13.1/4.6/8.9)
Phoenix came into the season with the goal of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2010 (where they lost the Western Conference Finals to the Lakers) or at least cracking the .500 mark since their surprising 2013-2014 season (48-34, but still finished 9th in a loaded conference). They brought in a new coach in former 76ers assistant Monty Williams and made some moves to upgrade the frontcourt, signing Aron Baynes and former 76er Dario Saric.
Unfortunately (that word keeps coming up in these previews), 2018 #1 overall pick DeAndre Ayton tested positive for a banned substance and was suspended for 25 games after playing on Opening Night. His absence left a large hole in the middle of the Phoenix lineup, and as competent as Baynes is he was not able to fill it.
The Suns had many issues this season, as is the case with most teams sporting a .400 winning percentage. Defensively they allow 113.9 points per night, with rebounding being one of their larger problems on that end (22nd overall, 24th in defensive rebounding). That rebounding problem can be attributed some to the absence of Ayton, but it is alarming that a team that gives up the 6th-most three-point attempts per night is also that bad at rebounding misses.
Offensively, when you consider the combined efforts of Booker, Ayton and Kelly Oubre Jr (18.7 points per night but is out for the season with a knee injury), you would think that the Suns would put up better overall numbers. But despite the ninth-fastest pace in the league, they’re 14th in the league in points per night (112.6). Their offense is not helped by giving up the ball, with the ninth-most turnovers with 15.1 giveaways/game. Saric, who started the year struggling to get minutes, began to contribute more as his minutes increased just before the stoppage of play, averaging 14.5 points and 6.4 rebounds in the final eight games. If he remains a part of the rotation in the bubble he could help Phoenix surprise an opponent or two.