Game preview_ sixers @ bulls _ philadelphia 76ers

Scene Setter:

On the West Side of the Windy City on Wednesday, the 67th season of NBA basketball in the history of the 76ers (10-71) franchise draws to a close. An underachieving Chicago Bulls (41-40) team will be waiting at United Center, where the two Eastern Conference foes are set to tip-off at 8:00 PM EST. The Sixers will be playing for a second straight night. Chicago, on the other hand, has been idle since Monday.

The Sixers’ 19th and final back-to-back set of the year began Tuesday in Toronto. After the Atlantic Division champion Raptors raced out to a 32-23 lead through the opening 12 minutes of play, the Sixers turned the game around by hitting Toronto with a 22-6 blitz in the second period. The highlight of the run was a string of 13 straight points that the punctuated the half. The Sixers subsequently stormed into intermission with momentum, and a 61-55 advantage. At the midway juncture of the third, the Sixers’ fortunes changed, due in large part to the All-Star guard combo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry delivering their most impactful minutes of the contest. They paired up to account for half of the output generated amidst a game-changing 28-7 spurt that vaulted the Raptors in front, 87-74, going into the fourth quarter. Toronto won going away, 122-98. The Sixers, which mustered up 38 points in the second quarter, were limited to 37 total points between the third and fourth. Robert Covington was a force in the second frame, tallying 16 of his game-high 24 points (7-12 fg, 6-10 3fg). For a third outing in a row, Nerlens Noel manufactured a double-double. He tallied 14 points (5-9 fg) and 10 rebounds. Toronto created a considerable advantage on the interior, outrebounding the Sixers by 20, and outscoring them by 16 in the paint.

While Chicago has earned five wins in eight games, this modest stretch of improved play will end up going for naught. The Bulls have already been eliminated from post-season contention, even though they are assured a non-losing record for the eighth consecutive year. Chicago dispatched the depleted New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, 121-116, behind a potent second half. The Bulls cranked out 68 points following intermission, and got by without the services of All-Stars Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. Rose remained healthy for most of the season, making 66 appearances, his most since playing 81 games in 2010-2011. He has, however, been ruled out for the rest of this year. Signed to a max deal in July, Jimmy Butler paces Chicago with an average of 21.0 points in 37.1 minutes per game. At 35 years old, Gasol had a productive slate, putting up 16.5 points and a team-best 11.0 rebounds per game.

Series:

Recent history has favored Chicago, which has prevailed in the previous nine tilts between the Sixers and Bulls, and 14 of 15 overall. When last they met on January 14th at The Center, the Sixers fell victim to a milestone performance from Chicago All-Star Jimmy Butler. He racked up 53 points, a career-high, to help the Bulls overcome a 24-point advantage the Sixers had built up midway through the third quarter. Chicago pushed the hard-fought bout to overtime, and eventually claimed a 115-111 victory. Butler did the bulk of his damage on the interior, where he succeeded in reaching the free thrown line 25 times. He converted all but four of those attempts. The 26-year old wing man out of Marquette dropped 23 points on the Sixers in the Bulls’ December 14th 115-96 home triumph over the Sixers. The Sixers fell to the Bulls, 111-88, at The Center on November 9th as well. Two of the Sixers’ Chicagoland natives have fared well versus the Bulls this season. Robert Covington has averaged 20 points, and hit nine threes in two appearances in the series. Jahlil Okafor was responsible for 18.3 points and 9.0 rebounds per game in three clashes with the club he rooted for growing up. Okafor will not be available Wednesday, as he remains on the mend from the small right knee operation he underwent three weeks ago.

Subplots:

Covington Coming Off Efficient Showing

With Robert Covington serving as the spark, the Sixers powered their way to a 61-55 halftime lead in Tuesday’s 122-98 defeat at Toronto. The Tennessee State product came up empty on the lone shot he took in the opening frame, then went on to erupt for 16 of his game-best 24 points in the second. He deposited nine points – all via the long ball – during the Sixers’ 22-6 second quarter surge.

“I thought he took good shots,” said Brown, assessing Covington’s performance in his post-game news conference at Air Canada Centre. “He had 17 three attempts last game, and that’s a huge number. [Tuesday], we really talked about getting open looks.”

Based on Covington’s final box line, the head coach’s message appeared to have hit home. He converted seven of his 12 field goal attempts, and six of the 10 shots he fired from distance.

“When he gets a clean look at the rim, he’s as pretty of a shooter as their is in the NBA. He’s got beautiful rotation on his ball, and beautiful arc. His release point is perfect, and I thought , especially at the start [Tuesday], we were finding him.”

Covington paced the Sixers with 167 three-pointers last season, his first with the organization. He knew that coming into this campaign, he’d be a marked man.

One of the biggest challenges he encountered this year, however, was health. He was sidelined for nine of the Sixers’ first 10 contests, then was out for another six game-stretch in mid-March because of a concussion.

“He missed the first month, a large portion of the year, and we were hurt for that,” Brown said. “Then, he started playing, and getting into rhythm.”

Over his last three games, Covington has averaged 24.3 points and 17.7 field goal attempts.

“It was just us finding each other, the open man, moving the ball really well, and getting into gaps and sinking the defense,” said Covington. He and the Sixers totaled 15 threes, one shy of the franchise record. “That’s what we did that really helped us in the first half. “

Stauskas Slams Way Through Latest Homecoming

Nik Stauskas is in the final days of his second NBA season. Tuesday marked just the third opportunity he has had as a pro to suit up in Air Canada Centre, the league’s closest arena to his hometown. The 22-year oldwas raised in Mississauga, Ontario, about a half hour’s drive west of Toronto.

Two minutes into Tuesday’s contest, Stauskas knocked down a perimeter jump shot, the skill with which his career has been most closely associated. He would not hit another three-pointer the rest of the night, despite taking five more heaves from beyond the arc.

Still, during stages of the game that were most competitive, Stauskas proved effective, thanks to his ability to drive to the rim. Stauskas has exhibited increased proficiency in this area as the season has winded down.

Of Stauskas’ five non-three point made field goals, four were dunks. The other was a cutting lay-up.

In looking back at each of Stauskas’ slams, his first one might not have only been his most impressive of the evening, but perhaps his best this year.

Stauskas next punished the rim late in the second period, as the Sixers’ 22-6 run approached its climax.

Stauskas’ third flush occurred with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter, and was delivered at a critical juncture. The scoreboard would not be tied again.

Stauskas delivered his last dunk in the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

Stauskas’ four jams on Tuesday equaled his total from all of last season, which he spent with the Sacramento Kings.

“It’s always fun coming back here and getting to play in front of friends and family, just because they don’t get to see me too often anywhere else,” said Stauskas.

Based on the way he played, fun certainly appeared to be what Stauskas was having.

Hoiberg Holds Himself Accountable

A 3-9 slump that began in early February, followed later by a 3-7 rut towards the end of March sealed Chicago’s fate this season. The Bulls will miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years. In his rookie campaign as an NBA head coach, Fred Hoiberg was unable to translate to the pros the success he enjoyed during a five-year stint at Iowa State, where he directed the shockers to a 115-56 record and four NCAA Tournament berths in five years.

“I’m confident in my abilities, absolutely,” Hoiberg told reporters earlier this week. “I’ve been in this league a long time. This is my 16th year in the NBA, my first year obviously as a coach. There are things I know I can do better, and I know I will do better.”

Hoiberg played in the NBA for a decade, spending four of those years with the Bulls. He later was a member of Minnesota’s front office.

The defensive stinginess that was a hallmark of the Tom Thibodeau-coached Chicago teams from the previous five seasons has since eroded. The Bulls enter Wednesday’s contest ranked 16th in the NBA in points allowed per game (103.1), and 15th in defensive efficiency (103.9 points per 100 possessions).

“It’s a learning opportunity for all of us,” said Hoiberg of the season.

Sixers Health Report:

Isaiah Canaan (left shoulder)

Richaun Holmes (right achilles strain)

Carl Landry (back)

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