The Sixers (40-25) visited the Orlando Magic (18-50) on Sunday evening for the first game of a back-to-back. Philadelphia wanted to right its many wrongs from a 29-point loss to the Nets on Thursday. Orlando hoped to push its winning streak to 3 games. Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tobias Harris combined for 87 points to power the Sixers to an overtime victory over the Magic, 116-114.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Danny Green, who is still out with a left middle finger laceration.
Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way) were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were not available.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Magic were without Jonathan Isaac, who is recovering from a left knee injury. Bol Bol was out after having undergone surgery on his right foot.
Jamahl Mosley started Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr., and Mo Bamba.
Tobias Harris opened the game with a loaded gun, scoring 7 of the Sixers’ first 8 points. The fashion in which he did it was most encouraging of all. On the very first play of the game, Harris muscled his way to the top of the restricted area before floating in a short jumper. He followed that up with a triple off the catch without hesitating. Another of Harris’ three triples off the catch gave the Sixers the lead in the last minute of overtime.
The version of Harris that buys into those catch-and-shoot threes without thinking about it is the version that fits best with the Sixers. It was just two shots. There’s no reason to buy that he’s suddenly figured it out. But the version of him that is most compatible with Harden, and the version that may have some staying power for the remainder of his contract, needs to buy into that.
Harris saved the first half for the Sixers, really. They had nothing going on either end before halftime. Without him, Philly would’ve been down by more than 20 points before intermission against a team 32 games below .500. Harris capped his triple without thinking for 2 seconds. He also attacked mismatches instead of settling for inefficient midrange jumpers. To his teammates’ credit, they fed him. Harris established himself in the post against smaller defenders and backed them down with one dribble before executing his post move.
You’re more than happy to let him score on those post-ups because the strategy should always be attacking the mismatch. 8 of his 15 first-half points came in such situations. But the best version of his fit with the Sixers is hoisting 6 threes per game. If he’s not taking a three, he should be attacking heavy close-outs as the empty-side slasher. If not that, he must abuse mismatches in the paint. The more he can cut out that in-between game consisting of pump-fakes, over-dribbling, and midrange isolations, the better.
Georges Niang was critical to keeping the Sixers in the game as Orlando fought to stay afloat with their barrage of threes. Niang hit 4 triples in total, cutting the Magic lead back to 6 points after they pushed it to 9 points on numerous occasions in the final frame.
As crunch time wore on and progressed into overtime, the Sixers did a much better job of getting into something resembling an offensive set. Their out-of-timeout plays were suspect. The last play of regulation being “Embiid holds the ball for 7 seconds, attracts the double-team, and kicks to Maxey for a deep three at the buzzer”. But, Harden and Embiid did a fine job of setting up for middle pick-and-rolls down the stretch. One such play early in overtime got Embiid a layup as he glided to the rim. Others got Harden isolation matchups that he liked enough to attempt to take advantage.
It’s been two games in a row in which the Sixers looked like a team that hadn’t played together all that much. Of course, you expect those growing pains to hit early and subside. In this case, Philly started off red-hot and then forget what worked. The Sixers never figured it out against Brooklyn. They looked disjointed for most of the night against Orlando, but eventually figured it out in time for a victory. It was an ugly victory, but they figured out how to balance Embiid and Harden in time to snag a win that they barely deserved. So, I guess that builds character.
While he was no longer donning the bulky white sleeve that he had worn on his left leg in each of his first 6 games as a Sixer, James Harden wore a black compression wrap on his right calf. He wasn’t listed on the injury report, and the Sixers would likely hold him out against a team like Orlando if there was some ailment to be worried about. So, it could very well be nothing. But if he wasn’t wearing the item before, there is at least some validity to wondering if Harden is feeling his best.
It’s particularly worth noting because Harden was ineffective in last season’s playoff series between Brooklyn and Milwaukee because of a right hamstring injury. A calf wrap obviously doesn’t equate to a hamstring injury. But, muscles connect to one another. Kevin Durant, for example, struggled with calf issues in his last season with Golden State before rupturing the achilles in the same leg during the Finals.
Matisse Thybulle was horrific for most of the night. Besides getting into foul trouble midway through the first half, he pump-faked out of two open threes. He’s obviously not confident in his outside shot. But, he has to survey the landscape. Thybulle cannot dribble and has very little finesse in his game. So when he tries to dribble and pivot his way into difficult shots, it almost never goes well. He compounded the passed-up threes by then driving into the lane and flinging miracles towards the basket in hopes of kissing them off the glass. Harden even dimed him off a cut to the hoop early in the third quarter. But, Thybulle botched a rudimentary dunk.
Quite frankly, it’s beating a dead horse to say that Thybulle needs to figure the offense out. He made strides as a cutter around Embiid earlier in the season. But, Thybulle has really struggled to find any semblance of consistency with Harden joining the team. If Thybulle is going to get into foul trouble at inopportune moments, it doesn’t really matter if his offensive game never catches up because he’ll be on the bench anyway.
The Sixers did a terrible job of rotating on the empty side of the floor to protect against Orlando’s cross-court swing passes. It burned Philly tremendously in the first half. The Sixers surrendering a plethora of corner triples to the likes of Gary Harris, Chuma Okeke, and other Magicians. That was how the Magic built their lead as high as 17 points in the first half.
The Sixers did a slightly better job of keying in on the corners in the second half. However, they still didn’t do much to take away the other areas beyond the arc. Most of that was effort, though. There was a scramble late in the shot clock in which the Sixers were slow to fight for a loose ball. The chaos allowed Mo Wagner to claim possession and chuck an unbothered three to beat the clock. Harden and DeAndre Jordan were disinterested in rushing out to contest a pair of triples from RJ Hampton, as well.
It’s one thing if Harden and Jordan are late to close-outs because they’re older and can’t physically get there like they used to be able to. It’s an entirely different thing — and a much worse one, at that — if they’re just affording shooters space because they’ve given up on the possession.
Embiid and Harden combined for 61 points, which is outstanding. They could’ve pushed that to 80 had the Sixers’ two featured stars not played to contact throughout the game. Embiid was groaning and shooting faces at the officials each time he didn’t get calls. He was more interested in selling contact than honing in on making shots. That isn’t to say that he was searching for fouls that weren’t there. Embiid probably gets fouled more than he gets the beneficial whistle. But, you can’t call it every time down. And he’s so strong and skilled that he can just power through contact naturally as he plays instead of trying to grift for whistles.
Harden, on the other hand, was concerned about gesticulating towards officials when he lost the ball or botched layups as a driver. He did the same thing against Brooklyn, too. Perhaps it’s part of coming to terms with not being able to burst past individual defenders the way he used to now that he’s progressing through his 30s.
Maybe Harden is trying to reconcile that he’s a little slower now and that the contact he got when he was younger is no longer there. But, Harden has always been a grifter. And he’s struggled in the face of rule changes over the last few seasons. But, his inefficiencies over the last two nights have mostly originated from him playing to contact instead of focusing on the play in front of him. So while Embiid and Harden got their points, they shot 14-of-47 from the field and 28-of-32 at the free throw line. Sometimes that’ll work, and sometimes it won’t. The factor that changes that game is the officiating crew you get on any given night. They won’t get the same loose-whistled referees every night. As such, they have to count on their skills instead of taking the lazy route.
The league has to do something about their rules surrounding challenges. It’s fine to be docked a timeout if the challenge is unsuccessful. But, you should get your challenge back in addition to retaining the timeout if the challenge is successful. Also, why is the play resulting from a successful challenge a jump-ball? That has never made any sense to me.
The Sixers (41-25) host the Denver Nuggets (40-28) in a potential clash between MVP favorites Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic on Monday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.