When the 76ers face the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, they will be facing a team that is still competing for its playoff life and looking for some immediate redemption.
Before Saturday, the Trail Blazers were one of the hottest teams during the NBA seeding games, winning three of their first four, with the only loss a 128-124 defeat to the Boston Celtics.
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Portland played a Clippers team on Saturday that was resting Kawhi Leonard and didn’t play Paul George down the stretch.
Still, the Clippers prevailed, 122-117. That left Portland 1.5 games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. If the ninth seed is within four games of the eighth seed, there will be a play-in series. Several teams are also in the running for play-in consideration.
The Trail Blazers (32-39), who are perceived to be a dangerous team if they do earn that eighth seed, have three games left beginning with Sunday’s 6:30 p.m. matchup against the Sixers. It will be their second of a back-to-back.
“The Sixers are a challenge whether it is a back-to-back or not,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said after Saturday’s loss on a Zoom interview. “This loss today really hurt, so hopefully we have the mindset of how important our game is.”
Stotts doesn’t feel playing back-to-back games will be an issue, especially since teams are situated in the NBA bubble in Kissimmee, Fla.
“They are great athletes, we play back-to-backs during the regular season, so I don’t think that fact that the back-to-back will matter because we know how important it is.”
The Sixers (42-27) had off from practice following Friday’s 108-101 win over Orlando that gave them a 3-1 record during the restart and a three-game win streak.
Portland is among the most explosive offensive teams and weaker defensive clubs.
Five-time All-Star guard Damian Lillard is a handful, but actually must bounce back from an uncharacteristic ending on Saturday. With 18.6 seconds left, he missed two free throws with Portland down by one, and then he missed a three-pointer with 9.5 seconds left that would have tied the game.
Lillard doesn’t feel he will be scarred from the experience when he faces the Sixers.
“I don’t see myself as a mental midget as somebody who will hold onto it,” he said on Zoom. “I am a shooter.”
Lillard is averaging 29.4 points in the five seeding games.
“I have been in big situations at the end of the game a lot and I have had success a lot in those situations and that is the way it goes sometimes,” he said. “You got to come up short and fail in those moments. I know that is a possibility because I am in that situation all the time so when it does happen that is not going to discourage me or make me any less confident. If anything, I am looking at it as the next time it is going to go the other way.”
Portland lost its only game to the Sixers on Nov. 2 at home, 129-128. Furkan Korkmaz made the game-winning three-pointer with 0.4 seconds left.
One player the Sixers will have to watch is Gary Trent Jr. The 6-foot-5 second-year player from Duke is averaging 8.8 points this season, but has been on fire in the restart, averaging 20.6 points and shooting 28 for 45 (62.2%) from three-point range.
Portland has also been bolstered by the return of center Jusuf Nurkic and forward Zach Collins.
Nurkic suffered a horrific leg injury on March 25, 2019 and didn’t return to action until the NBA’s restart. In the five seeding games he has averaged 19.6 points and 11.4 rebounds.
Collins had only played three games before the restart, missing most of the season with a shoulder injury. In the five seeding games he is averaging 7.0 points and 7.4 rebounds. Center Hassan Whiteside didn’t play against the Clippers due to a strained left hip.
The Sixers will be playing their second game without Ben Simmons. On Saturday the team announced that Simmons will undergo surgery in the coming days to remove a loose body in his left knee.