SALT LAKE CITY — Things are about to get tougher for the 76ers.
The undermanned squad is riding a four-game losing streak, with its last two losses coming to teams that now have 6-8 records. Now, the Sixers (8-6) are about to face three of the Western Conference’s elite teams over the final five games of their road trip.
This isn’t an ideal time for Joel Embiid to be in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Not only are their next two opponents elite, the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets have two of the league’s best centers in Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokić.
“It’s nothing you can do about it,” coach Doc Rivers said following Monday’s practice at the Vivint Center. “They’re coming unless we can do a deal with Denver and tell them to sit some of these guys.
“It just is what it is. We don’t have our big fellas here. We just have to make do ... There’s still ways to win games. In the long run, this will probably help us become a better team.”
Like Embiid, reserve guard Matisse Thybulle remains in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Meanwhile, small forward Danny Green reinjured his left hamstring against the Pacers.
“I wouldn’t say ‘pull,’ I would say ‘slight stretch,’ ” Green said of his injury. “It’s a difference. My body is just letting me know I need a little bit more time.”
Saturday marked his fourth game back after missing the previous three with the injury. Green said his hamstring is at 80 to 90%.
Green, who didn’t practice Monday, said he assumes he’ll be sidelined for a couple of days. He’s been receiving treatment. The Sixers have also fined point guard Ben Simmons for making the six-game road trip. The disgruntled point guard, who’s been sidelined all season, has said he’s not mentally ready to play.
It’s a good thing the Sixers signed two-time All-Star center Andre Drummond in free agency this summer with Embiid sidelined. Drummond has fared well during head-to-head competitions against Gobert and Jokić.
He knows he’ll have to play them differently with Gobert being more of a rim protector and Jokić a multifaceted point center.
Drummond will look to neutralize Gobert in Tuesday night’s matchup against the Jazz (8-5). The 7-foot-2, 258-pounder is a three-time defensive player of the year, four-time All-NBA selection and five-time All-Defensive performer. He’s averaging 14.9 points, a league-best 15.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game.
“I’m not really worrying about him offensively, trying to go for 30 points like Jokić would,” Drummond said. “With him, it’s mainly keeping him away from the basket, being physical with him, making him uncomfortable, making him take tough shots around the rim that he’s not normally used to taking.”
Defensively, the Sixers’ main focus will be on trying to contain Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson, Bojan Bogdanović, and Joe Ingles. But while on offense, Drummond and the Sixers must attack Gobert and get him in foul trouble.
Drummond has had the slight advantage in 11 head-to-head matchups against Gobert.
He averaged 12.9 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks in those matchups. Meanwhile, Gobert averaged 10.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.5 steals, and 1.9 blocks.
Following Tuesday’s game, Drummond and the Sixers will face the Jokić-led Nuggets (9-5) Thursday at the Pepsi Center.
Jokić, the 2020-21 league MVP, averaged 25.3 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 6.3 assists, and shot 39.2% on three-pointers heading into Monday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
“With Jokić, obviously, he’s an all-around guy,” Drummond said of the three-time All-Star and All-NBA selection. “He’s a guy that we have to watch out for from all aspects, defensively, offensively, with his passing skills, ability to score from all over the floor.”
Drummond won’t shut down Jokić, but he’ll try to make him take tough shots. The Sixers will live with him making contested shots.
An ability to slide to the three-point line makes Jokić tough to guard for opposing centers. Drummond has been fortunate in that he’s usually positioned at the elbow during their matchups.
“When he’s at the three-point line, we have to do a lot of switching,” Drummond said. “I have to guard guards, and it’s haywire all over the place. So with him, it’s just playing to the best of our ability.
“Obviously, he’s a very talented guy. He’s a league MVP. Just try to make him take tough shots and do stuff that he’s uncomfortable with.”
Jokić has averaged 17.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 block in five games against Drummond. The Sixer averaged 14.2 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.9 blocks in those contests.
After facing the Nuggets, the Sixers have two winnable games at the Portland Trail Blazers (Saturday) and the Sacramento Kings (Monday).
The Sixers will conclude the trip at the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 24. At 11-2, the Warriors have the league’s best record. Golden State point guard Steph Curry, the older brother of Sixers guard Seth Curry, is the league’s second-leading scorer at 28.1 points per game.
“We have to be sharper on both ends of the floor,” Seth Curry said of snapping the skid. “We have to get back to executing offensively and getting timely stops defensively. We’re at a thin line of winning and losing games.”