The Sixers (32-17) hosted the Orlando Magic (20-31) again on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from Monday’s loss to the Magic. Orlando wanted to sweep the two-game set in Philadelphia. A good bit of defensive playmaking in the third quarter from Joel Embiid gave the Sixers a lead they would not relinquish, 105-94.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Magic were without the services of Jonathan Isaac, who missed the game as part of injury management as he returns from a torn ACL in his left knee. Chuma Okeke is recovering from surgery on his left knee and was out.
Jamahl Mosley started Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero, and Wendell Carter Jr.
The Sixers were without Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats. Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
It was a junky start on offense for both teams. But, Orlando’s shotmaking issue subsided far quicker on Wednesday than it did on Monday. Orlando threatened to do some damage early. That was when Embiid simply decided to put the Sixers on his back to keep pace with the Magic’s shotmaking. He put his head down and decided to apply his physicality. Once Embiid became the aggressor, there was nothing Orlando could do to stop him.
It all started around the left block, Embiid surveying his matchup out of the post. He was one quick move over his right shoulder away from having the Magic dead to rights, forging driving paths to the rim by sheer strength. It was one of the more physically dominant runs we’ve seen out of Embiid this season. The big guy simply made easy work of a big, athletic Magic team by imposing his body. Embiid scored 16 points in the first frame. He spear-headed the Sixers’ 14-point lead heading into the second quarter.
If I’m going to bash Harden’s futility on defense (see below), I must also credit him for quietly becoming a more willing catch-and-shoot guy on the perimeter. It feels like most of those three-point attempts come on tap-outs as the Sixers fight for offensive rebounds. But, some are coming without a second of hesitation when the ball swings his way on passes. He’s proven adaptable and willing to accommodate in more ways than just being the clear second option and engineer to Embiid’s top dog and easy shots.
The Sixers created all the separation they needed with a remarkable run of defensive playmaking from Embiid in the third quarter. He played up on the perimeter, challenging the likes of Franz Wagner to make difficult jumpers after expensing energy to create space from the agile big man. Embiid also did a great job of disrupting shots around the rim, rotating to drivers at the last second to reject their layups or bother them into leaving some change on the rim.
One of the best things Embiid did in the second half was keep Carter Jr. away from Orlando’s offensive glass. As soon as the well of second-chance opportunities dried up for Orlando, the Sixers were cooking with legitimate gas.
If you were wondering when the Sixers would start to wake up from their emotional victories against Brooklyn and Denver, you were still waiting as this game started. Philadelphia had as much interest in defense through the first quarter as they did for the final two-and-a-half quarters of Monday’s 21-point blown lead and loss to the same squad.
This time, the early culprit was keeping track of shooters. It wasn’t just in a halfcourt environment. The problem was present in transition, too. Orlando had Harris stationed on Harden’s side of the floor. He was ready to catch and shoot whenever no. 1 got pulled too far towards the paint in help. Whether it was Harden simply being a space cadet against a halfcourt offense or stepping too far away in help rotation as the ball penetrated the paint, Orlando was one pass away from a wide open three on a number of possessions in the first quarter. He knocked down three from deep in the first 12 minutes.
Philadelphia did eventually lock in on defense. The Sixers compounded their defensive stops with some strong offense to end the first quarter on a 17-0 run. But, nearly all the good will they built was destroyed as soon as the second quarter began, Rivers again giving Harrell a vote of confidence. The first Orlando possession was a Mo Wagner back-cut for a dunk, punishing Harrell’s overplay. The second possession was a second chance score, Bol Bol flying in for a putback because Harrell failed to secure the backside when the shot went up.
As bad as Harrell was in his stint in the first half, Rivers went back to him again in the second half. What’s the definition of insanity?
The problem isn’t Harrell, by himself. He is what he is. Harrell’s contract — a veteran minimum — says you get what you paid for. The problem lies with Paul Reed, as well. If he made meaningful progress and proved himself trustworthy when he was in the rotation earlier in the season, he’d ostensibly have run away with the backup job behind Embiid. When Reed has been good, he’s been much better than Harrell’s average night. But, Reed hasn’t been consistently good enough to sway Rivers, who was already leaning towards Harrell anyway.
Make no mistake, Harrell is going to be totally unplayable in the playoffs. But, I don’t know that I can say Reed will be good enough to really get the job done, either. The simple fact of the matter is that both have disappointed this season. One game sample size is always meaningless. But, they were a combined minus-9 in five minutes of play in the first half.
The general story of the Sixers’ backup center spot this season has been “who is the lesser of two evils in this matchup?”. That’s not the same as “one guy came out and won the job”. That fact is why the Sixers have to seriously evaluate options at backup center with the trade deadline and buyout market approaching.
As good as the Sixers have been lately, it was quite disappointing to see the same theme from the first half of Monday’s game present in the first half on Wednesday. The Sixers figure some things out and build a double-digit lead. Then, they cough it up as soon as Embiid goes to the bench. And in virtually identical fashion, no less.
Philadelphia committed far too many live-ball turnovers. The Sixers compounded the issue with very poor transition defense. That’s a failure on everyone — from the guys in uniform to the guys barking out orders from the sidelines. Getting beat in the same effort categories by the same opponent twice in one week is simply unacceptable.
Harden was great in most statistical categories (26 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds on 7-for-13 shooting). But, he committed seven turnovers in the game. From my view, some of his drives to the basket that saw him lose the ball definitely had some contact go uncalled. If he’s already picked up his dribble in those instances, those lost balls should be called as missed shots rather than turnovers, in my opinion.
But, there were also a handful of passes he tried to deliver that the Magic sniffed out. They used their length to intercept those passes and get out in transition. On a night when the transition defense was less than inspiring, Harden’s turnovers kept this one competitive well into the fourth quarter.
The Sixers (33-17) will visit the San Antonio Spurs (14-38) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.