The Sixers (32-16) hosted the Orlando Magic (19-31) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to eight games. Orlando wanted to snap a two-game skid. The Sixers blew a 21-point first half lead with terrible effort and equally poor execution, succumbing to the Magic, 119-109.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Magic were without Chuma Okeke, who is recovering from left knee surgery.
Jamahl Mosley started Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero, and Wendell Carter Jr.
The Sixers were without Louis King and Julian Champagnie, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before — Embiid set the tone for his team early in the first quarter. It could’ve easily been a letdown game after Saturday’s classic against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets. But, Embiid’s effort was noticeable in his first stint of the game.
He ran the floor on offense, keeping pace with the ball. Orlando shot the ball horribly in the first quarter, mandating that any touches Embiid received were going to come by way of him running the open floor. He punished the Magic inside, both in the first quarter and throughout the first half. There wasn’t a ton of jump-shooting out of the big guy in the game’s first 24 minutes. He knew he could destroy anyone the Magic put in his way, or capitalize on their handsiness to get to the charity stripe if the bucket wasn’t there.
Much like he did in the closing stages of Philadelphia’s win over the Nuggets, Embiid proved his trust in his four comrades. He didn’t take every shot available to him, demonstrating layers to his offensive game beyond scoring by hitting Harris cutting to the basket or establishing himself against mismatches inside.
Embiid made sure his impact wasn’t felt all on the more glorious side of the court. He was locked in on defense, too. Embiid made good decisions out of drop coverage, backing up as the ball approached him to encourage drivers before serving a pair of shots at the rim away. He completed some great defensive stands with big man rebounds over multiple white jerseys. Embiid was springy against the lowly Magic, treating this game like an opportunity to dominate with little difficulty instead of going on autopilot. He played every bit like a star reinvigorated by his own presence in the MVP conversation, seizing the opportunity to build upon his case.
The Sixers, as a whole did a fantastic job of protecting the basket in the first quarter. Orlando was off the mark with virtually everything it threw at the rim. But, Embiid wasn’t always the one to affect the shot. Each Sixer was stapled to a driver, hands high and giving body to make the Magic uncomfortable as they tried to attack the basket.
I felt like Rivers going with an all-bench lineup of Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang, and Montrezl Harrell at the end of the first quarter and start of the second quarter was a bit of an underestimation of what the Magic were capable of. The numbers say Milton and Maxey, together, is a bit of a death duo for opponents. But, all-bench units will always draw skepticism.
Nonetheless, they punched back after an Orlando run. That group wasn’t perfect on defense (more on that below), the interior still quite vulnerable if the Magic were actually able to get the ball inside. But, the Sixers were connected on defense, everyone giving effort. Sometimes, that synergy makes up for individual weaknesses. Philadelphia did a nice job of disrupting Orlando with deflections, creating live-ball turnovers to activate the transition offense.
Quite literally as soon as Embiid left the floor in the first quarter, the Magic got a pair of easy scores at the rim from the Wagner brothers. The latter came from Mo Wagner, gliding down the runway for a powerful dunk as Harrell, out of position, froze and watched.
I still think another athletic wing with defensive chops is a more pressing need. But, backup center still might be the only legitimate problem. At this point, it might be the only thing holding the Sixers back from a title if Rivers pledges his allegiance to Harrell in the playoffs. There aren’t many matchups who lack size or athleticism, especially as you survey the playoff field. It’s difficult to trust that Harrell will be passable on defense in virtually any matchup. At the same time, Rivers has basically no trust in Paul Reed right now. The only saving grace is that Reed got fewer regular season minutes last season than he’s received this season, and surprised a lot of people in last season’s two-round stay in the postseason.
The Sixers looked primed to win their eighth consecutive game pretty much from the opening jump ball to the middle of the second quarter. But, they turned off the effort switch as quickly as they turned it on. Look no further than the disparity in offensive rebounds and transition scores. Orlando chipped away by keeping its possessions alive on missed shots, beating the Sixers to the ball off the rim to earn additional plays. The Magic also tightened up on defense, using their length to turn Philadelphia over for run-outs.
The Sixers certainly helped the Magic as the game progressed, committing careless turnovers all over the place. It feels like the Sixers have stepped out of bounds attacking close-outs more in the past two games than they have all season. There were also a pair of hideous dribbling miscues, Harden and Melton simply getting their cookies stolen because they were trying to do too much or weren’t paying attention.
As good as Embiid was in the first quarter, he reverted to autopilot for much of the remainder of the game. He played outside-inwards on offense, acquiescing Orlando’s physicality and catching the ball far from the basket. The big guy was mostly disengaged after a hot start. The team followed suit. If the conductor doesn’t do their job, the whole choir is lost.
The Sixers collectively stopped playing through contact, instead looking for fouls. Embiid took a while to get up after hitting the hardwood, voicing his displeasure to the officials. Harris cared more about letting the officials hear it on a miss that sent the Magic on the run in the second half. It wasn’t that they were wrong. It’s that fouls happen virtually every play. That’s the nature of the game. You’re not going to get every call you think you deserve. And there’s no asterisk next to the loss column noting all the games you lost because you thought you were cheated by the officials. You simply have to get up and get back on defense.
Philadelphia’s defense has been in a state of regression for a few weeks now. Some of the old bad habits have recurred. The difference is the Sixers have been able to overcome it with elite offense. But, that isn’t a winning formula.
Even when the Sixers did get back on defense, their rotations on defense were awful. It’s not goading the opponent into open threes with poor contests if they’re making them. That’s just bad defense. Orlando was often two or fewer passes away from open triples throughout the second half. You blinked, and a seemingly impenetrable advantage was trimmed all the way down to single digits.
While the losses have been few and far between lately, you can predict exactly when the trouble is going to hit because of how routine Rivers’ rotations are. Rivers put Harrell in as Banchero heated up, the Magic already storming back into the game. Predictably, the Sixers surrendered the lead during that stretch without Embiid on the court. After a game-changing coaching move on Saturday, rough go for Rivers on Monday.
The offense was surprisingly horrible in crunch time, the Sixers unable to put their foot down after Embiid buried a jumper to replenish a two-point lead upon his return to the game. There was no movement, the ball sticking for multiple seconds with no plan. Just passing the ball doesn’t qualify as ball movement. There needs to be purpose and urgency, and the Sixers were way too slow with their possessions down the stretch.
Embiid didn’t help the cause very much. He made basically no effort to get inside to pressure Orlando. I can understand double-teams making it difficult to catch the ball down low. But, you have to match physicality with physicality. He didn’t do that in crunch time.
Embiid looked totally lost down the stretch, playing to contact on nearly every touch. The team’s execution was simply horrible, everyone committing turnovers at the most inopportune moments as the clock ticked down. Philadelphia has been so good at executing crunch time offense. Perhaps this game was a punch in the gut that they really needed to humble themselves. But, the execution was inexplicably bad all the way around at the game’s most critical moments.
I certainly wouldn’t say I’m concerned about it, but Maxey has really struggled to get going in each of these last two games. I think much of it probably has to do with the lack of offensive firepower in the lineups he’s playing with. Defenses know to key on him because no one else is as explosive as he is.
But, there are times when he’s next to Embiid and Harden and still doesn’t look like himself. I think those cases are probably him trying to find the balance between spacer and aggressive scoring guard. Right now, his role is to be the sixth man. That means the green light is on for him whenever he touches the ball.
I’d like to see him stop settling for jumpers after extended dribbling sequences. Give yourself momentum into a pull-up jumper, or look for a path to the rim and attack aggressively. But, don’t waste time dribbling aimlessly. The Sixers need him to be something markedly closer to the guy who lit the Nets up than the guy he’s been since then.
The Sixers (32-17) will host the Orlando Magic (20-31) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.