Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid

The Sixers (20-16) visited the Orlando Magic (7-31) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to 5 games. Orlando intended to snap a 6-game losing streak. Four Sixers scored at least 20 points to catalyze a victory for Philadelphia.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The following Sixers were in the health and safety protocol and were unavailable:

  • Tyrese Maxey
  • Myles Powell
  • Paul Reed
  • Jaden Springer
  • Matisse Thybulle

Shake Milton missed the game with a back contusion after a hard fall in the team’s victory over the Rockets.

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and was unavailable.

Doc Rivers returned from his stint in the health and safety protocol. He started Seth Curry, Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

Robin Lopez was in the health and safety protocol and was unavailable for the Magic. Moritz Wagner missed the game with a non-COVID illness.

Michael Carter-Wiliams is recovering from a left ankle injury and was out. Markelle Fultz is recovering from a torn left ACL (and is in the health and safety protocol) and was unavailable. Jonathan Isaac is also recovering from a torn left ACL and did not play.

E’Twaun Moore missed the game with a sprained left knee, while Jalen Suggs was out with a fractured right thumb.

Jamahl Mosley started Cole Anthony, Gary Harris, Franz Wagner, Wendell Carter Jr, and Mo Bamba.

First Quarter

Perhaps it was to avoid picking up another strike after being whistled for a foul within the first two minutes of the game, but it was pretty clear that Joel Embiid was off as a rim-protector to start this game. Granted, the Magic are extraordinarily quick on their feet. And you’re not going to get to every ball that floats up to the rim. But, there were a handful of plays in which Embiid was late to contests that were there for the taking. His instincts are far too strong to mis-time multiple contests the way he did in the first quarter. He’s an established-enough defender to get the benefit of the doubt that it wasn’t an effort issue, especially given the foul trouble. But with the risk aversion in protecting the rim, and Orlando’s blistering speed and athleticism, the Magic scored 18 of their first 24 non-free-throw points in the paint. 

With Orlando’s early pace, the Sixers found themselves in a bit of a hole before they could blink. But, torrid three-point shooting late in the first quarter enabled them to restore order. Seth Curry, in particular, caught fire. He deposited three triples in the first quarter, and was more than willing to call his own number.

Curry finished with 13 points on 6 shots in the first half. He’ll tell you that he’s always had the ability to be a point guard in him, and then he’ll let you know you haven’t been watching him if you weren’t aware of that. Whether you want to believe that or not is up to you. But Curry has assumed major point guard duties in service of Ben Simmons this season. So, he’s had bouts of indecision when it came to firing away. There’s a balance to be struck between facilitating an offense and doing what has put food on your table in the NBA. His passing as a floor general has been fine. But it’s probably been a bit inflated by the chemistry he has with Embiid in their two-man game. The Sixers’ offense moves with a higher level of horsepower when Curry is aggressively hunting his shot. And more importantly, such an offense is more sustainable come playoff time than is one in which Curry is trying to lean into the point guard job.

Second Quarter

One of the more bizarre things about observing the growth of the Sixers during the Embiid era is seeing how the roster has morphed from a bunch of spry youngsters who could run teams off the court into a team of veterans that finds themselves being run off the court by younger teams. The younger, more athletic Magicians were praying for transition play. They knew they could boat-race the Sixers if they could get out and run. The once young Sixers are no longer. ‘Time flies’ is the apropos adage, I suppose.

After an overblown exchange with fans during a dreadful performance against the Rockets on Monday, Tobias Harris came out with 14 points on 11 shots in the first half. Besides looking more comfortable in asserting his aggression as a scorer, Harris was decisive and quick in the second frame. He got downhill on hand-offs and trusted his floater, muscled smaller matchups into power scores in the paint, and even knocked in a triple to break a streak of 11 consecutive misses from beyond the arc. He contributed 9 points on 6 shots in the second quarter. When a player is struggling, the last thing you want to see them do is second-guess shots. Even if a player is in a slump, the best thing they can do for themselves and their teammates is take shots within the flow of the offense without hesitating. He still pump-faked semi-open threes in service of pull-up twos or attacks at the basket, but Harris was hunting scores within his comfort zone.

Marc Jackson is just filling in for Alaa Abdelnaby as the color analyst, but his energy in that role is fantastic. It’s anyone’s best guess as to whether he actually likes doing the color commentary. But, he’s damn good at it. If he wants a gig doing that, his future in Philly may be cloudy unless there’s change in the booth.

Third Quarter

Isaiah Joe missed the second half with right leg soreness.

When the Sixers play down to inferior competition, they usually go into halftime looking to wake up from their nap and then come out blazing in the second half. On Wednesday, they woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Philly was relatively dialed in before halftime, pushing its lead to 5 points after approaching double-digit deficit territory in the first half. It was in the early stages of the third quarter that the Sixers fell asleep. With the victory, the Sixers are 5 games above .500. But, they have the tendencies of a .500 team. And their point differential of plus-1 through 37 games this season is aligned with a .500 record. The COVID excuse only takes you so far considering Joel Embiid and Harris haven’t really missed any time since their early-season stints in the health and safety protocol. Beyond that, other playoff teams have battled COVID and haven’t struggled with inconsistent play the way the Sixers have.

The mad scientist Doctor Rivers decided to get a little crazy in his return from the health and safety protocol. Late in the third quarter, he experimented with lineups sporting Embiid and Andre Drummond in the front-court. This writer has no qualms with getting a little funky and zigging when others zag. So, I commend Rivers’ willingness to do the unusual. And it actually worked — those lineups were plus-5 in approximately 3 minutes and 30 seconds of play to close the third quarter. That’s not even close to an adequate sample size to derive any sort of valid conclusions on such a pairing. But, it worked in the moment. And Rivers gets his credit for that. 

Fourth Quarter

The Sixers ran the equivalent of a basketball crime on offense in the non-Embiid minutes in the fourth quarter. Mind you, the Sixers were running Curry, Danny Green, Harris, Niang, and Drummond. That lineup has zero shot creation. It does have three theoretical shooters. But to say that you couldn’t forecast disaster on the offensive end with that grouping would be dishonest. What you didn’t expect was that group holding down the fort on the defense side of the ball. 

To be fair, the Magic absolutely stink. So, that group doesn’t get much more than a head nod for keeping a Magic lineup down. Given Orlando’s youth and athleticism up and down the roster, that unit does get credit for playing beyond what would normally be insurmountable physical differences. Despite being smaller, slower, and less agile, that unit recorded enough stops to overcome a scoring drought of its own. The rotations were crisp, with helpers recovering to unattended shooters to aid their teammates as they made their own rounds. Even when Orlando could crack the driving lanes, the Sixers were there to disturb them with quick hands. The Magicians were losing control of the ball, and live-ball turnovers or wild misses ensued. And Philly was out to the races.

Even with that unit outscoring Orlando 17-7 before Embiid was taken off the charger, the Magic made a run to cut the lead to 3 points with fewer than 5 minutes to play. You may not have been concerned about the game’s outcome because it was the lowly Magic, but the Sixers just aren’t consistent against inferior competition. They’ll have games in which they never turn it on and get upset or close out late. There have been instances in which they turn it on in the final quarter to push the game into blowout territory. Then, there are games in which they’ll create separation and go on cruise control without actually pushing the lead any further. The Sixers seldom get wire-to-wire victories, but they are certainly talented enough to blitz some of the opponents they’ve faced over the last month. What they don’t seem to understand is that they aren’t good enough to blow teams out without fully engaging on a particular side of the ball.

The coaching staff can pardon themselves by saying the team is missing players due to COVID. But, that excuse doesn’t fly when you’re trying to justify losing to the Hawks sans Trae Young, Danilo Gallinari, De’Andre Hunter, and others by saying that you didn’t have Georges Niang. They have to compound good stints on one end with equal play on the other end. Sometimes you fall into a slump on offense. That’s acceptable. What is hard to justify is the bouts with poor focus on defense. That poor focus allowed the Magic to make some noise in crunch time before ultimately succumbing. The Sixers can’t just cruise when Embiid checks back in. And sometimes his greatness serves as a security blanket that enables his teammates to drift into daydreams. And his offensive greatness doesn’t justify what was largely an unimpressive defensive showing by the big man.

Danny Green, in the midst of receiving criticism in Philly for defending Tobias Harris against fans expressing their displeasures with his play, put up a Tony Snell stat line of 0s across the board (save for 2 field goal attempts and 1 foul) in 24 minutes on Wednesday. Maybe stay off social media for a few days.

The Sixers (21-16) will host the San Antonio Spurs (15-22) on Friday night. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.