The Sixers (9-9) visited the Orlando Magic (5-13) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a loss to the Hornets on Wednesday. Orlando aimed to snap a two-game losing streak. Shake Milton went for 24 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds to propel the Sixers to victory, 107-99.
Before we get to the game, some context is due.
Joel Embiid remained out with a sprained left mid-foot. James Harden is recovering from a strained tendon in his right foot and was unavailable. Tyrese Maxey has a small fracture in his left foot and was out.
Matisse Thybulle missed his second consecutive game with Tenosynovitis in his left ankle. Jaden Springer has a strained right quad and was unavailable.
Saben Lee, who was signed to a Two-Way contract after Tuesday’s victory over the Nets, was available to make his Sixers debut. Michael Foster Jr. was waived as a necessity of adding Lee. The Sixers hope that Foster clears waivers so that they can add him to their G-League team, according to multiple reports.
Doc Rivers started Shake Milton, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Montrezl Harrell.
The Magic were without Cole Anthony, who has a torn right internal oblique. Wendell Carter Jr. was out with a strained right plantar fascia.
Chuma Okeke was out with a sore left knee. Terrence Ross missed the game with an illness.
Markelle Fultz missed the game with a fractured left big toe. Jonathan Isaac is recovering from a left knee injury and was out.
Jamahl Mosley started Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero, Bol Bol, and Mo Bamba.
I thought the Sixers had moments of defensive brilliance in the first few minutes of the game, playing to Orlando’s below-average corner three-point shooting with high blitzes on ball screens. The intention was clear — contain the ball. Philadelphia challenged Franz Wagner to make plays, trusting Harrell to recover back to the roller and the far-smaller Tucker to step up and mitigate dives to the rim. There is significant risk in blitzing high when you don’t have Embiid against a unit that features Bol and Bamba. If the ball-handler manages to get that pass inside, you’re cooked. But, regardless of the scheme, Philadelphia was at a significant size disadvantage inside anyway. So, there was merit to trying to contain the ball from even getting inside to begin with.
One of the big swings benefitting Philadelphia right now is Melton’s jump-shooting both off the catch and off the dribble. His shooting was one of the three primary reasons Philadelphia stayed ahead of the Nets on Tuesday, and he was pretty much the only reason the Sixers weren’t down by double digits in the first quarter on Friday. That comfort off the dribble is especially valuable for this team’s reserve lineups. Even if he’s not a great playmaker at this stage of his career, having someone capable of creating their own shot off the bench with consistency is one of the few things unrelated to the team’s starting lineup that I could see raising their ceiling.
Milton deserves some spotlight for his offensive play of late. He made some critical midrange jumpers in the win over Brooklyn, made up for his own mistakes with a big scoring run in the fourth quarter of the loss to Charlotte, and was dialed in from deep in this one. One of the Sixers mysteries over the past few years has been the vanishing of his three-point shot. He has exhibited some inconsistencies with his shooting mechanic from beyond the arc, so I do wonder if he has confidence issues with his own strength. In other words, does he believe he can consistently reach the basket from deep? I’m not so sure. But, he certainly believed in himself on Friday, knocking down four of seven attempts from deep before the game even reached the five-minute mark of the third quarter.
He flies under the radar because he’s something of a specialist, but Georges Niang has been a terrific pickup at his price. The guy has been a knockdown sniper with only one memorable slump since his arrival. He doesn’t need a ton of space to get his shots off. Not because he’s got a quick or high release. Rather, because he can focus through a contest to knock shots down. His consistent shooting has made him a crucial figure on the Sixers’ depth chart. That’s a dynamite find considering what the Sixers paid him in free agency.
I still think the Sixers have one point guard on their roster. But, Milton is slowly making me a believer in his playmaking. He’s the only player of the ones currently available who can put the ball on the deck, read the defense, and toggle between shooting and passing while simultaneously moving. The thing that makes me a cautious believer is that he’s doing it with more consistency in this stretch without Harden and Maxey. He picked up 10 assists in this game, a career high, to cap off a three-game stretch that also saw him dime nine and five times.
He’s seeing the floor in a variety of contexts, too. Whether it’s knifing from left to right, pressing on the gas to get downhill, or navigating pick-and-rolls well, he’s becoming less and less predictable. Milton has been undeniably huge for Philadelphia over this stretch without Maxey. We’ll see if there’s regression once he’s relegated to a more limited role.
Harris got absolutely dusted on some nasty back-door cuts in the first quarter. On one hand, he’s just not a very good defender. On the other hand, I do think it’s appropriate to wonder whether the ankle and hip injuries are hampering his recovery speed to some degree. I’m inclined to believe it’s more the former than the latter.
The thing about below-average corner three-point shooting did not hold in the first half. Orlando was dialing it up from both sides in the first half.
For better or for worse — mostly for worse — Danuel House Jr. either overthinks when he gets open threes and doesn’t even get up a shot or plays with the greenest light you’ve ever seen. He tried a step-back three from the corner that missed everything. Brutal stuff.
The Sixers have some capable rebounders among some really bad ball-watchers, and it really hurt them in the first half. A bunch of second-chance opportunities for Orlando because they beat the Sixers to the glass. Granted, the Sixers were already at a disadvantage in the size department. But, they didn’t help themselves, either. The size mismatch also manifested in a bunch of quality looks at the rim, whether it was on the first attempt or on offensive rebounds. There were instances of success, like Harris blocking Banchero on a post-up. But, Orlando was plus-14 in the paint at halftime. That won’t do.
It’s anyone’s best guess as to where Tucker’s head is. But, I’d venture to say he’s starting to think more about the fact that he’s really struggled making shots lately. He finished 0-for-3 in 25 minutes in this game. A sign that it’s in his head was him rushing shots at the rim in the first half. You rush because you want to sneak it past the defense, and you don’t trust yourself to score with defenders around you.
Harris was snuffed at the rim a couple times in the second half. Normally, that’s not noteworthy. But, he had a couple chances to score in transition that went pointless. The part that is mind-boggling is that he would’ve likely scored if he simply used a jump-stop to get the defender in the air. He’s not athletic enough to go right at bigger defenders in most cases. So, he needs to be creative, even if to a marginal degree. It’s frustrating to watch because he’s had that problem for years and it’s a simple extra step to remember when you attack the basket.
As great as Milton and Melton have been, consider me pessimistic about their abilities to maintain this level of play once the top three in the pecking order came back. They’re doing it with the ball in their hands. That means they’re most comfortable functioning in roles that allow them to be creative in some capacity. They’ve adjusted quite nicely to increased roles. But, everyone was concerned about how the Sixers would survive this stretch because the Sixers’ backup guards hadn’t proven that they could be consistently great in second-unit roles.
Perhaps that’s to say I don’t buy that this team is as deep as they appear to be. It sounds weird to proclaim, but if they’re excelling in roles because they’re touching the ball as much as ever, can the best version of the team be that deep if those depth pieces regress to their more inconsistent selves once the best players return? If they were both better at making decisions off the catch, I’d be more optimistic that they could maintain it. But, perhaps they’ll prove me wrong.
For now, I’m guessing that things will balance out once the top three guys return, just as things balanced out when those guys went down. Perhaps it’s all a referendum on coaching anyway. Milton and Melton are playing so well because of the amount of activity the offense plays with. Why can’t that activity persist when the best players are back?
The older generation of Sixers fans will assert that the team cannot win with an offense so focused on Embiid, Harden, and Maxey. And perhaps there’s truth to that. But, this is a league driven by stars. You want your stars to control the ball when the game hangs in the balance. But, there needs to be a balance between your best players and your bench. It’s on everyone at the top — coaching and lead players — to figure out a way to keep the non-Niang bench players involved in ways that maximize them if that regression does come.
I don’t typically have much commentary or critique for broadcasts. But, Kate Scott yelling, “Goodnight, Orlando!” as the Sixers went up eight points with five minutes to go was bold. With Orlando getting to within five points in the final two minutes, she’s lucky she didn’t end up on Old Takes Exposed.
The Sixers (10-9) will stay in Orlando for a second game against the Magic (5-14). Tip-off is set for 6 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.