The 76ers had off from practice Thursday and will look to break a two-game losing streak when they host the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night.

The Mavs (18-9) will be without MVP candidate Luka Doncic (sprained right ankle). Even without Doncic, Dallas won at Milwaukee on Monday, snapping the Bucks’ 18-game win streak.

The Sixers will try to avoid losing three in a row for the first time since falling at Phoenix, Utah and Denver in early November. The loss to the Suns came without Joel Embiid, who was serving the second game of a two-game suspension. Since then, Embiid hasn’t been his same old, happy-go-lucky self.

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Embiid not in a jovial mood

Embiid has been different this season. Not only have his numbers been down, but so apparently is his mood.

It goes back to when he was ejected for his altercation with Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns during the Sixers’ 117-95 win on Oct. 30. Both players received two-game suspensions.

Embiid has since talked about losing his rhythm after the suspension and toning down his trash talking, and he has said several times how he isn’t having as much fun.

Last week he actually responded to criticism by Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal that he wasn’t playing hard enough, first agreeing with the two Hall of Famers and then playing his best game of the season in a 115-109 win at Boston. Embiid had 38 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and a blocked shot. Coach Brett Brown called it one of his best games ever, which is saying something.

Even after that win, Embiid wasn’t his jovial self. That doesn’t mean Embiid has to be a laugh-a-minute person after each win, but there seems to be a frustration that things aren’t working out the way he envisioned.

Remember the day before training camp when he stated one of his goals was to be MVP? Right now, he isn’t among the top contenders. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t played well. It’s just that he hasn’t taken that next step.

Since that win in Boston, the Celtics’ first home defeat, Embiid and his team did just enough to beat lottery-bound New Orleans, then lost by 20 at Brooklyn. Embiid missed that game with an upper respiratory illness.

Then came Wednesday’s 108-104 loss to Miami, the Sixers’ first home defeat this year after 14 wins. Embiid had 22 points, shot 8-for-19 from the field and totaled 19 rebounds. He had a minus-11 rating. His 12 points in the fourth quarter aided a Sixers comeback that fell just short.

In the first half, he shot 2-for-7 and scored just six points as the Sixers trailed, 56-48. Miami, once down by 12, went to a zone in the second quarter and turned the game around.

“In the first half, I don’t even remember myself being in any action or getting the ball,” Embiid said. “It [the Heat zone] was in the scouting report. We knew they were going to do it, we were prepared for it, but I guess we didn’t act on it. We didn’t do what we talked about.”

He was frustrated about not getting the ball. That was obvious. But sometimes he has to put himself in a better position to receive it. Teams are double- and triple-teaming him more. It has been rougher for him. The intense defensive attention isn’t going to lessen.

Embiid is averaging 22.7 points, 12.2 rebounds and 30.53 minutes of action. Those numbers are down, however, from last season (27.5, 13.6, 33.7).

Starting five

Derrick Jones, of the Heat, dunking over Joel Embiid on Wednesday night.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Derrick Jones, of the Heat, dunking over Joel Embiid on Wednesday night.

Improved opponents

For the second straight game, the Sixers will be hosting a non-playoff team from last season that is vastly improved and seems headed for the postseason.

Wednesday, it was the Heat, who finished 39-43 last season, but improved to 20-8 with their win over the Sixers.

Friday night, it’ll be the Mavericks (18-9), who were 33-49 last year.

The key for both teams this year has been their ability to play well on the road. In handing the Sixers their first home loss of the season, Miami improved to 9-7 on the road.

Dallas has a 10-2 road record. Only the Los Angeles Lakers, with 14 road wins, and Milwaukee Bucks (11) have more wins away from home than the Mavs.

Dallas has won five in a row on the road.

Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots as Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)
Sam Hodde / AP
Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots as Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis (6) defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Sam Hodde)

Next five

Tonight: Dallas at Sixers, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN

Tomorrow: Washington at Sixers,, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Monday: Sixers at Detroit, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus

Wednesday: Milwaukee at Sixers, 2:30 p.m., ABC

Dec. 27: Sixers at Orlando, 7 p.m.; NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV.

Passing the Rock

Question: I predicted (haven’t been wrong yet), the Heat came to play hard last night and do everything it took to defeat the hometown squad. Al Horford could have really earned his salary if he could have made a routine three last night in the guts of the game to keep the historic streak alive. Let’s hope he doesn’t shrink in the lights again when those types of legacy making opportunities arise.

However, I believe the Sixers could really use a true clutch veteran shooter on the roster as a hired gun for those types of moments, which will keep coming up during the season and the playoffs. Why not give free agent Jamal Crawford a look? What’s to lose? — Ranard Williams via email

Answer: Thanks for the question and comments, Ranard, and for reading our Sixers coverage.

First, I have to take exception with your calling it a “routine three” by Horford. It was from 29 feet, and there is nothing routine about that. I think everybody agrees with you that the Sixers need a shooter.

While I like Crawford and would sign him if I were the Sixers, despite the fact that he’ll turn 40 in March, you can’t really call him a shooter. He is more of a scorer, shooting 41% from the field and 34.8% from three-point range.