Sixers at Nets: Kevin Durant, Andre Drummond among those set to return

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Durant won't be the only big defensive challenge for Sixers in Brooklyn originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers’ last game of the calendar year is against the Eastern Conference’s current leader.

With Doc Rivers entering health and safety protocols Thursday morning, Dan Burke will serve as acting head coach. Tyler Johnson and Myles Powell also were placed into protocols Thursday. 

Here are the essentials for the matchup between the 23-9 Nets and 18-16 Sixers: 

  • When: 7 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. 

  • Where: Barclays Center  

  • Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia 

  • Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the MyTeams app 

And here are storylines to watch: 

Drummond (and possibly Milton) back 

It appears Andre Drummond will play two consecutive games in Brooklyn. 

The big man went 15 minutes in the Sixers’ Dec. 16 loss to the Nets, then entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols before the team’s postponed Dec. 19 meeting with the Pelicans and missed the next four games. He has now cleared protocols and is available to return. Charles Bassey and Paul Reed handled backup center minutes without him during a 3-1 stretch for the Sixers. 

Shake Milton, who was placed into COVID-19 protocols on the same day as Drummond, was listed Thursday morning as questionable to come back. In addition to Johnson and Powell, Danny Green (health and safety protocols) and Ben Simmons (personal reasons) are out.

Four Nets are out: Joe Harris (left ankle surgery), Kyrie Irving (ineligible to play), Day’Ron Sharpe and Kessler Edwards (health and safety protocols). 

Defensive challenges 

Like Drummond, LaMarcus Aldridge is set to return after a stretch on the sidelines because of COVID protocols. The 36-year-old burned the Sixers with some pick-and-pop magic in an October win at Wells Fargo Center, scoring 23 points in 23 minutes on 10-for-12 shooting.

With all due respect to Aldridge, the Sixers will be more wary of another stellar mid-range shooter who recently cleared protocols. MVP candidate Kevin Durant posted 34 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists in the Sixers-Nets meeting two weeks ago.

Though the Sixers started with Green on Durant, they finished with Tobias Harris guarding the 11-time All-Star. Per the NBA’s tracking data, Durant shot 9 for 15 (3 for 3 from three-point range) with Harris defending him, including several tightly contested jumpers that no player on the planet could’ve stopped.

Of course, Durant isn’t the only offensive force the Sixers will need to contain. James Harden has totaled 75 points and 25 assists over his last two games. 

As the Sixers' defensive coordinator under normal circumstances, Burke already would've been preparing defensive strategies. That tends to be a tough job against Brooklyn.

Can Sixers keep wearing out path to line? 

The Sixers haven’t been an especially good (or especially bad) team on either side of the ball. They rank 14th in offensive rating and 14th in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass.

But, as was also the case last season, the Sixers have been the best in the league at drawing and making free throws. The Sixers’ 20.9 free throw rate outside of garbage time is No. 1 in the league, and so is their 82.2 free throw percentage.  

The 32 free throws the team converted during Tuesday’s win over the Raptors were a season high. Joel Embiid’s 12-for-14 performance wasn’t unusual, but Harris’ 13-for-14 night was. He set career bests in both attempts and makes. Even if that doesn’t become the norm for Harris, it would be an important development for the Sixers if he keeps inviting contact and earning free points.