The 76ers are navigating through their injury issues, and now they must face the NBA’s hottest team, led by the unstoppable Devin Booker.
The 6-foot-5 Booker, who has been playing out of his mind during the seeding games, will lead the Phoenix Suns’ playoff run when they face the Sixers in Tuesday’s 4:30 p.m. game in Kissimmee, Fla.
Phoenix improved to 6-0 during the NBA’s restart Monday with a 128-101 win over an Oklahoma City Thunder team that had several key player sitting out. The Suns are the NBA’s only unbeaten team during the seeding games.
Phoenix will be facing another shorthanded team in the Sixers. Ben Simmons, who had surgery Monday morning to remove the loose body in his left knee, will be joined on the sideline by Joel Embiid (twisted left ankle) and Josh Richardson (rest). Tobias Harris (right ankle soreness) and Al Horford (left knee soreness) are questionable.
Even at full strength, dealing with Booker is a thankless task, especially the way he is playing in the restart. During the six seeding games, he is averaging 30.3 points. While Booker is only shooting 13 for 39 (33%) from three-point range, he is getting to the line and converting. On Monday he scored 35 points and hit all 14 fouls shots. He has connected on 47 of 50 free throws (94%) in the six games.
“No, I wouldn’t say surprised,” Booker said after the game on a Zoom interview. “From the moment we got down here, it has been high energy and competitive.”
Booker, who played one season at Kentucky and turns 24 in October, is in his fifth season with the Suns, who have been mired in losing during his career. Phoenix hasn’t made the postseason since 2010 and went 19-63 last season.
Even now the Suns are just 32-39, but they are seriously challenging for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot. Phoenix is in 10th place, but just a half-game behind Portland for ninth and one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference.
“It has been fun,” Booker said. “We have been playing really good basketball.”
Booker knows he is living the good life, and an example came in the third quarter. With the shot clock running down, he sank a 39-foot three-pointer.
“It was a late shot clock and I had to get one on the rim,” he said. “I don’t shoot any shots to miss them.”
Booker was playing at a high level way before the restart, but the difference now is that Phoenix is winning. For the season he is averaging 26.5 points per game.
He was considered the best player not to make the all-star team this year, but that was rectified when Booker was picked as an injury replacement after Portland’s Damian Lillard pulled out due to an injury.
At least the Sixers have experience, albeit not very pleasant, in defending high-scoring players in the seeding games. In their first game in Florida, the Sixers allowed TJ Warren to score 53 points in a 127-121 loss to the Indiana Pacers. On Sunday, Lillard poured in 51 in Portland’s 124-121 win over the Sixers.
One of the players who will guard Booker is Sixers rookie defensive whiz Matisse Thybulle.
“It is a huge challenge and I am excited for it,,” said Thybulle on a Zoom call before Monday’s practice, which consisted of film and individual shooting. “We’ve got good guys who have my back and allow me to go out there and make some gambles and take some risks to try to make plays. And the whole time they have my back, to have me covered in case the play doesn’t go in my favor.”