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Next for Sixers: the surprising Phoenix Suns, led by former 76ers assistant Monty Williams | Off the Dribble

The Suns were the worst team in the NBA's Western Conference the last three seasons. Williams has them at 4-2, including a win over the Clippers.

Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker has scored 30-plus points in four straight games against the Sixers.
Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker has scored 30-plus points in four straight games against the Sixers.Read moreBrandon Dill / AP

PORTLAND, Ore. — How many of y’all thought the 76ers would come back Saturday night?

Better yet, how many of y’all honestly thought they would come back?

Yours truly thought they were cooked when the Portland Trail Blazers took a commanding 21-point lead with 5 minutes, 4 seconds remaining in the third quarter. But they proved me wrong thanks in large part to Furkan Korkmaz’s go-ahead three-pointer with .4 of a second left.

By now, folks know they held on to win, 129-128, at the Moda Center and remain undefeated through five games. Next up is tonight’s game against the surprising Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

This game will be a reunion of sorts.

Suns coach Monty Williams was the Sixers’ lead assistant last season. One of his assistant coaches, Randy Ayers, is a former Sixers head coach. Another assistant, Willie Green, is a former Sixers player. Suns power forward Dario Saric is a former Sixer. And the Sixers drafted Mikal Bridges with the 10th overall pick in 2018 before trading him to the Suns on draft night. Bridges’ mother, Tyneesha Rivers, works for the Sixers.

But don’t get all this twisted. The Sixers will look to remain undefeated and extend their winning streak over the Suns (4-2) to four games.

To do so, they’re going to have to contain standout guard Devin Booker, who has scored 30-plus points in four consecutive games against the Sixers. He’s averaging 38 points and shooting 45% from three-point land during the four-game stretch.

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The full Monty factor

It’s still early, but what Williams has accomplished in Phoenix has been impressive.

He inherited a squad coming off a Western Conference-worst 19-63 campaign. That marked the third straight season the Suns finished last in the conference.

Yet the Suns are 4-2 after Saturday night’s 114-105 road victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. That’s not a bad feat for the league’s youngest team (average age: 24.49). The league-wide average is 26.18. The Houston Rockets are the oldest team at 30.24.

The Suns’ signature win is a 130-122 decision over the Los Angeles Clippers on Oct. 26.

They’re entering a tough stretch with six straight home games against the Sixers, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics. But for now, they are among the league’s surprise teams under Williams.

But was it a total surprise?

Williams was one of the NBA’s most highly sought head-coaching candidates. He was also a finalist for the Lakers’ coaching position, which he turned down.

“I’ve known him for 15, 16 years,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said when Williams accepted the Suns position in May. "Anyone who pays attention understands that he’s ‘elite people.’ He’s incredibly relational, prideful in studying how to be a coach.

“I hope he’s taking something from our program.”

Williams joined the Sixers’ coaching staff in June after two years in the San Antonio Spurs’ front office.

The Spurs job came after he spent the 2015-16 season as an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He took a leave of absence after his wife, Ingrid, died in a car accident on Feb. 10, 2016, and after the season, it was announced that Williams would not return.

Before going to Oklahoma City, he had compiled a 173-221 record during five seasons as the New Orleans Pelicans’ head coach. Williams led New Orleans to postseason appearances in 2011 and 2015. Before that, he spent five seasons as an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers. He also was an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s national team from 2013-16.

Starting five

Sixers-Blazers best and worst: Damian Lillard’s dominance, James Ennis III’s defense, Furkan Korkmaz’s game-winner. Korkmaz’s winner was by far the biggest shot in the third-year guard’s career and the biggest shot for the Sixers so far this season.

Ben Simmons delivered two clutch free throws to help complete the 76ers’ comeback.

Korkmaz’s clutch three-pointer lifted the Sixers to 129-128 victory over Blazers. The victory improved the Sixers to 5-0 for the first time since the 2000-01 season.

Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle is already recognized as one of NBA’s elite defenders. Thybulle led the NBA in steals at 2.8 per game heading into Sunday’s NBA games.

For Sixers and for himself, Joel Embiid should log off Instagram and let his game do the talking.

Don’t even think about it

Yesterday morning, a friend texted me about Al Horford’s solid performance against the Trail Blazers. He noted that Horford played well as Joel Embiid missed the first game of a two-game suspension after fighting Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns on Wednesday.

Horford finished with a team-high 25 points on 12-for-24 shooting to go with seven assists, two blocks and one steal in Saturday’s 129-128 victory over the Blazers.

He has averaged 24 points in the two games Embiid has missed compared to 11 in the three games Embiid has played. Embiid also sat out the Sixers’ victory over the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 26 with a sprained right ankle.

Tobias Harris has also benefited from the two-time All-Star center’s absence. The forward averages 26 points when Embiid sits and 15.3 when he plays.

As my friend pointed out, there has been more space for the two when Embiid doesn’t play. But let’s face it: Embiid is the franchise player. He’s the one who will have a major say in their quest to win an NBA title.

So they’re better off with him on the floor.

The scoring disparities are eye-opening, though. It’s just a reminder of how the Sixers need to do a better job of getting all of their guys involved no matter who’s on the floor.

Important dates: Next five flow

Tonight: Sixers at Phoenix Suns, 9 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Wednesday: Sixers at Utah Jazz, 9 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Friday: Sixers at Denver Nuggets, 9 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Sunday: Charlotte Hornets at Sixers, 6 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia

Nov. 12: Cleveland Cavaliers at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia and NBA TV

Passing the rock

Question: Will Matisse continue to be the one to step up if one of the starters can’t play? — @LachnerJulius on Twitter

Answer: What’s up, @LachnerJulius? Thanks for the great question. I think it will be depend on how he continues to play as a starter.

While he had two steals and one block Saturday against the Trail Blazers, he looked a little of a sync and passive offensively as a starter. I think a lot of that has to do with his offensive struggles. But he needs to be more aggressive in those opportunities, because he’s going to get a lot of open looks.

If he does that, then yes. If not, I think he’ll be better suited to come off the bench as the sixth man, a role with which he appears more comfortable.

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