Hot Sixers host struggling Trail Blazers (Jan 20, 2017)
The Philadelphia 76ers, a laughingstock in recent seasons, have new life.
The Portland Trail Blazers, thought to be a team on the rise, are in the meantime searching for their old mojo.
The two teams square off Friday night in Philadelphia.
The Sixers (14-26) are in a stretch that has seen them win five of six games and seven of nine, while the Blazers (18-26) are on a three-game losing streak.
Philadelphia has been bolstered by the play of rookie center Joel Embiid, who leads his team, as well as all first-year players, in scoring (19.9), rebounding (7.8) and blocked shots (2.4).
Before the Sixers faced Toronto on Wednesday night, Raptors coach Dwane Casey went so far as to compare Embiid to a young Shaquille O'Neal.
"Shaq didn't shoot it like this young man," Casey said, "but his athletic ability, his quickness, his speed for his size, his ability to get where he wants to go off the dribble presents a huge problem on both ends of the floor, because defensively now he's moving his feet to protect the rim."
Embiid then generated 26 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in Philadelphia's 94-89 victory, which ended a 14-game losing streak to the Raptors dating back to 2013.
It was the 10th straight game in which Embiid scored 20 points or more, even though he did not play more than 30 minutes in any of them. He is the first player with such a streak since the Elias Sports Bureau began tracking minutes in 1951-52.
The team continues to limit Embiid, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, to 28 minutes a night, after he missed two seasons while recovering from a pair of foot surgeries.
He has fully connected with a fan base weary of losing. Again and again the spectators launch into chants of "Trust the process" -- his catchphrase -- and he eggs them on. He is also an active and amusing presence on social media.
"Even on the road you hear 'trust the process' chants," Embiid said after Wednesday's game. "I feel like everybody around the world is starting to follow and trust us, and trust the process. The fans have been great. I'm glad we're winning games for them, (and) we're doing good for the city."
The Blazers had high hopes heading into this season, after upsetting the Clippers and testing the Warriors in last year's playoffs. Instead they have struggled. Wednesday's 107-85 loss in Charlotte, their third straight, dropped them to a season-low eight games under .500.
Portland, which will make its third stop on a four-game road trip Friday, shot 35.1 percent from the floor and 25.8 percent from 3-point range against the Hornets. While the Blazers got off to a better start than in their two previous games -- losses to Orlando and Washington -- they were outscored 31-20 in the second quarter and 28-13 in the fourth.
"I don't think our energy is good, man," center Mason Plumlee told the Oregonian. "Honestly, I think it is in spurts. We'll rally sometimes, but it's not sustained and that has to change."
Guard Damian Lillard agreed that the team's energy needs to be "more consistent."
"It's typical for every team," he told the Oregonian. "When things go well, that comes with energy. You're making shots, you're stopping the other team, you get energy from that because you feel good about what you're doing. I don't think we're giving ourselves enough situations to feel good about what we're doing often enough. Our energy drops because of that and teams take advantage of that."