Sixers fully aware of all the post-All-Star tests they're about to face

Sixers fully aware of all the post-All-Star tests they're about to face originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Let the second-half tests commence.

The Sixers returned to work Wednesday for their first practice after the All-Star break fully aware of how difficult their final 25 regular-season games look.

“Yeah, it’s a gauntlet,” Georges Niang said. “It’s going to be a grind, but it’s good preparation for us heading into the playoffs. I think our guys are well-rested from the All-Star break and ready to roll.”

The team has the NBA’s hardest remaining strength of schedule. After home games against the Grizzlies, Celtics and Heat to conclude February, the 38-19 Sixers will play 12 of their 17 March games on the road. They have four back-to-backs in March, too.

Wednesday’s practice ran longer than normal, but that’s not because the Sixers were drilling elaborate game plans for specific opponents on the calendar.

“It was sloppy, messy, but we got up and down,” head coach Doc Rivers said. “We scrimmaged for a good hour. We scrimmaged turnovers and missed shots — that’s what it felt like — but we kind of let them exercise it out of them, and then we got into some stuff as well.”

The Sixers’ initial injury report for Thursday night’s matchup vs. Memphis did not include Joel Embiid. The Grizzlies ruled out Steven Adams (right knee PCL sprain) and Luke Kennard (non-COVID illness).

Embiid had been listed as questionable prior to the break with left foot soreness and indicated he might not appear in the All-Star Game, though he ultimately decided to play. 

“I have no issues with that,” Rivers said. “He had some time off, said he felt better. I told him, ‘If you feel healthy enough to play, play. If you don’t, don’t. But just let them know.’ And I think he did that, so it’s all good.”

The Sixers’ health picture isn’t suddenly pristine, but Rivers thought the time away was positive for De’Anthony Melton, who’s played through a back issue for the large majority of the season.

“Yeah, him and Tobias (Harris). I thought Tobias was banged up,” Rivers said. “I still think Tobias is a little banged up, but De’Anthony just needed the break to reset himself. He said he did that and he’s ready, so that’s good.”

According to Rivers, the Sixers will be cognizant of Melton’s minutes volume while aiming not to disrupt his rhythm more than necessary.

“He still has the same issue,” Rivers said. “He’s learned how to manage it a little better. I think we’ve done a better job at, in games where we can rest him more, doing that. But I don’t know if that’s been better for him as a player. … So that’s something we talked about over the break. There’s a fine line with too much rest … so we’ve got to walk that line, especially during this schedule.”

Even if their injury luck is great, the Sixers still expect to lean on bench players a bit more as they navigate that challenging schedule.

Melton and Shake Milton each impressed earlier this season when the Sixers were shorthanded. Another source of optimism is the team’s success thus far against high-quality opposition. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers have gone 11-8 against top-10 opponents (in terms of net rating). The Celtics, Bucks and Grizzlies are the only other teams above .500.

The Sixers have also generally been solid on the road since Rivers’ hiring. After going an appalling 12-26 during the 2019-20 season, the Sixers went 47-30 away from Philadelphia over the next two years. They’re at 15-11 this season.

“I think there’s a good carryover of the stuff that we preach,” Milton said. “I know at home, our fans are a huge driving force for us — just the fact that we want to go out there and play hard for them, and just having that energy behind us. And we know what it means to them.

“So when we get on the road, I feel like we’ve just done a better job top to bottom. Our leaders — James (Harden), Joel, Tobias — are doing a good job of locking us in, keeping our mental where it needs to be. I feel like if we come out and we play with some energy and some pace, we’re a hard team to beat, period.”