Nerlens Noel promised that despite a nagging knee problem, the road game in his previous home of Philadelphia is one he would not miss.
Tonight is that night.
“It will be a good day,’’ the Dallas Mavericks center said after the morning shootaround, “and hopefully it will be a better game.’’
The 76ers are 24-43 and have historically struggled even worse than that against Dallas; the Mavs have won eight straight against Philly. Dallas is 29-38 and has benefited greatly from the presence of the 22-year-old Noel, acquired on Feb. 23 in trade for center Andrew Bogut, second-year swingman Justin Anderson and (essentially) two second-round picks. Bogut never even unpacked in Philly (he moved on to Cleveland but sustained a season-ending injury in his first Mavs game). The two seconds represent a steal. And Simba? He’ll be part of the show tonight.
But most eyes, from both fan bases, will be on Noel, who has averaged 10.3 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in seven games with the Mavericks while often coming off the bench. He returned from a three-game absence due to left knee soreness on Wednesday in Washington and scored 12 points in Dallas’ late-game upset win over the Wizards.
Dirk Nowitzki, seemingly energized by Dallas’ ability to both forge a youth movement and maintain a reach within the No. 8 spot in the West playoff race, said Noel simply needs to continue on his present path to be a big help.
“Just play the game that he did in Washington,” Nowitzki said. “Give us good and solid minutes, give us rim presence on both sides of the floor … guard multiple positions. And just be a threat out there.’’
Dallas is 7-4 since the All-Star Break, but the Mavs remain in 10th, 3.5 back of eighth-place Denver. They’ll get a push from both Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry, who despite a recent slump, has since the All-Star Break shot a sizzling 49.2 percent from the arc.
During these last 11 games, Dallas has outscored opponents by an average of almost three points per game. That’s a top-half-of-the-conference rate, a promise for the future.
And speaking of the future? It’s what the Sixers’ “process’’ is all about. The philosophy — and a plague of injuries — has freed Dario Saric to standout, as he’s averaging 20.2 points per game since the All-Star Game.
But again, tonight (with our DBcom GameThread here) will largely be about reflection on and for Noel, who on Thursday night hung out in downtown Philly and passed out free cheesesteaks to all comers.
I've been thinking about this game for some time now," Noel said. "So, I'm definitely looking forward to seeing my guys again, playing against all my guys. It's going to be a very weird feeling. But I'm definitely ecstatic to step in that arena to play a basketball game."