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Bulls vs. Sixers preview and thread: Chicago hoping for first-ever win against Embiid

Bulls’ first game against the Harden-Embiid tandem

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight, your depleted Chicago Bulls will face off against a fully-healthy Philadelphia 76ers club at the Wells Fargo Center in the desperate hope of avoiding their fifth straight loss.

Should the 39-25 Bulls fall to the formidable 39-24 Sixers tonight, Chicago will suddenly be just 0.5 games ahead of the ascendant Boston Celtics and in danger of losing home court advantage heading into the playoffs.

The Sixers will boast the best two players on the floor tonight in All-Stars Joel Embiid and James Harden, and rank ninth in offensive rating and 12th in defensive rating this season. Second-year combo guard Tyrese Maxey has fully blossomed with the recent addition of Harden. In his four games alongside Harden, Maxey is averaging a whopping 26.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.3 assists. Chicago’s issues defending perimeter players (aside from rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu, who is a good-if-inconsistent defender) will most likely be happily exploited by Maxey and Harden tonight.

In their four games with James Harden thus far, the Sixers are undefeated and have won by an average margin of 17 points. The Bulls have of course historically never beaten a healthy Joel Embiid in their 10 meetings with the All-Star center, dating back to their first meeting on January 24th, 2018, a 115-104 Sixers victory against the Hoiberg Bulls.

It looks like, beyond the injuries continuing to plague usual suspects Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams, starting center Nikola Vucevic (himself a former Sixer, many moons ago) could be held out tonight due to a right hamstring strain. The potential absence of Vucevic would be disastrous for Chicago, as either Derrick Jones Jr. or new addition Tristan Thompson would be drafted into starting duty at the five.

In the Bulls’ last contest, a 118-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, Thompson actually drew the start over Javonte Green at power forward in an old-school two-bigs front court look for Chicago. It... wasn’t great. But Thompson’s deficiencies as a starting power forward should not influence Billy Donovan if tasked with replacing Nikola Vucevic against Sixers MVP candidate Joel Embiid. Starting Thompson at center, however, against Embiid, would make more defensive sense in this matchup than Jones, though the 6’5” Jones is a more athletic and energetic option.

Embiid is averaging 29.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game across 51 contests, on 49% shooting from the field, 35.1% shooting from three-point range (on 3.7 attempts) and 82.2% from the free-throw line.

If the Bulls aren’t careful, tonight could be a parade to the free-throw line for the Sixers. Embiid and Harden alone are reaching the charity stripe a combined 21.9 times per game with Philadelphia this season.

Bulls All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine have both underwhelmed somewhat during Chicago’s losing streak. Alongside Vucevic, like them a below-average defender at his position, the duo will be leaned on heavily once again to just outscore the Sixers with their unreal offense and hope for the best on defense.

How can the Bulls, who seem to have tumbled from the ranks of the East’s elite with their injury absences, win tonight? By somehow forcing the ball into the hands of Tobias Harris as often as possible, and hopefully getting Embiid into foul trouble early. The Sixers’ starting power forward has been absolutely terrible alongside James Harden. His plodding play has been at odds with Philadelphia’s whole ethos, but his bloated salary (he’s making $36 million this year) has kept him as Philadelphia’s starter over Georges Niang for now. He is averaging just 11.8 points on 38.6% shooting from the floor in his games with Harden active.

Injury Report:

Nikola Vucevic is questionable with a right hamstring strain. He did not practice with the team yesterday. Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, and Patrick Williams are all still out.

The Sixers are fully healthy. James Harden appears to be available tonight after missing the Sixers’ most recent contest, a 99-82 loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday, with a hamstring issue of his own.

Game Time:

6 p.m. CT, NBC Sports Chicago. An “alternate BetCast broadcast” will be shown on NBC Sports Chicago Plus.

Odds:

The Sixers are 7-point favorites tonight, which sounds about right. The over/under for the cumulative game score has been listed at 232.5. (All info via DraftKings, Check out DraftKings Sportsbook, the official sportsbook partner of SB Nation.)