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October 21, 2018

5 observations from the Sixers' nail-biting win over the Orlando Magic

When Terrence Ross pulled up for (and made!) a 40-foot jumper to beat the shot clock and put Orlando in the lead with 1:25 left to play, it was hard to shake a feeling Sixers fans became familiar with over the last few seasons. The Sixers were about to squander away a winnable game — against a much worse opponent, I'll add — putting a sour taste in everyone's mouths before a brief road trip next week.

But when a Ross jumper fell short of the rim as the fourth quarter clock wound down, everyone at the Wells Fargo Center in Sixers colors could breathe a sigh of relief. Sometimes you just need to survive to rack up wins over an 82-game campaign, and that's what the Sixers did on Saturday night.

They did this, by the way, without the services of Ben Simmons for most of the night. That's a topic we'll catch up on later, but for now, to the play on the court.

Two-man game rules the day

Philadelphia's crunch-time offense last season centered around simple two-man action the Sixers would run for JJ Redick and Joel Embiid. The logic cuts both ways — the threat of Redick shooting can clear out space for Embiid near the basket, and Embiid's combination of size and touch can cause defenses to panic as he rolls toward the hoop, and Redick is a master of manipulating tiny windows of time and space to get shots up.

Locked in a tight game down the stretch against Orlando, the Sixers needed every bit of the chemistry between them to push the team over the top. Down one with 30 seconds left, Brown opted against calling a timeout and leaned on the duo to get a crunch-time bucket. That turned out to be the best decision he made all night.

It was the work they put in prior to the game-defining shot that made it possible for Redick to spring free in the first place. Defenders don't often know how to play him because he's just as likely to reject a screen and flash back toward the corner as he is to use it and turn the corner for a jumper at the top of the key.

And to Embiid's credit, he has steadily improved at manipulating overplays from the opponent and getting just enough contact on a screen to buy Redick the space he needed. After Redick scored with just over three minutes to play by turning Ross around and rejecting the Embiid screen, Embiid used a subtle step through to set up the pick on Redick's man, and it was lights out from there.

Those calculations have to come quickly with the game on the line, and both guys expressed their encouragement over the other's game in their postgame chats with the media.

"On the initial action, Joel has the option to dribble to ball in the post, or you know, play rifle, or re-handoff with me," said Redick. "I thought for him, in that play, it doesn’t matter to me how he decides to do whatever, but I just thought he showed a lot of poise in sort of reading the situation and coming back my way."

"I love playing with him. I told him the other day that he is the best player that I have ever played with because we understand each other so well," added Embiid. "When I am able to get him open, I love it. I know that when I set the screen I’ll hand it off and I know I’m going to be happy with the outcomes. I was saying the other day that I wish he was 24 years old so that we could be here for 10-15 years, but he’s old as shit."

Between Embiid and Redick, the pair came up with 63 of Philadelphia's 116 points on the night, and they needed every one of them in the one-point win. The Sixers dug themselves a ridiculous hole to start the game, going down by as many as 16 before they woke out of their slumber. There were health issues and personnel problems that put them in that hole to start with, but ultimately the Sixers just had more top-end talent and it showed in the end.

Embiid — whose 32-point game was his second 30+ game of the young season — joked after the game that if he hadn't converted some of his long-distance shots on the night there would have been big changes coming.

"That was good because I wouldn't have shot any threes for the rest of the season if I didn't make one today," said Embiid of going 3/5 from downtown. "It is something I have to keep focusing on because it makes me really unguardable."

Philadelphia's bench comes through with big minutes

Just two nights prior, Amir Johnson looked completely cooked and was called out as such on social media during the game. While not a heavy Twitter user, the veteran center decided it was time for a good ol' name search night on social media after a win over the Bulls, and he sparred with fans and media members alike over his performance.

More important for the Sixers, he showed that same fight against the Magic on Saturday evening. With the Sixers needing every bit of production the bench offered them, Johnson's ability to hold down the fort on defense and make a few tough hooks in the lane loomed large in the victory.

Embiid is so dominant on an average night that all the Sixers really need out of a backup center is to keep things in place. It's why Brett Brown showed such little regard for Richaun Holmes while he was here last season — his highs were certainly much higher than Johnson's are, but he was a much less trustworthy student of the game on the back end.

But he offered more than just a steady presence on defense against Orlando. Nothing he does on offense looks particularly pretty, but he was a perfect 4/4 from the field and even did some creating of his own with the team's floor general on the shelf for most of the night.

Bench production was the difference maker for the Sixers on Saturday, with the group collectively combining for a +44 between the five guys who got minutes off the pine. Furkan Korkmaz, who played just seven minutes following the unexpected loss of Simmons, was the only member of the group who ended up on the negative side of the ledger.

Each of the respective members of the bench unit has a role that makes sense for them, which is definitely a change from where this group was to start last season. Johnson is the defensive presence, T.J. McConnell is the steady hand at point, Landry Shamet helps spread the floor, and Redick is the instant offense, capable of upending second units and jumping back into the mix with the starting group in crunch time.

They won't have many better nights than this one, but whenever Mike Muscala and Wilson Chandler return from their injuries the Sixers should be able to get consistent, productive minutes from their backup group. And with the starters still trying to find their footing, that production is more important than ever.

What's happening on defense?

Pace and scoring are through the roof for the league at the moment, so all raw totals for scoring have to be taken with a grain of salt early on. But the Sixers have not exactly been a defensive juggernaut through the first three games, and there are some trends to keep an eye on before they get into the meat of their schedule.

One thing they definitely need to figure out is how to survive when Embiid gets dragged away from the basket, which will be increasingly frequent over time given the number of stretch bigs in the league these days. They've played three straight teams that all have bigs who are comfortable stepping out and shooting to start the year, but you can't write it off as matchup-based when so many other teams can say the same.

Robert Covington, who typically has his issues with on-ball defense and not play away from the ball, was one of the primary strugglers on this front Saturday. The Magic caught him off guard with several back cuts in the first half, and when he lacked a center behind him to clean things up, it resulted in some easy looks for Orlando.

Covington's team defense is typically excellent, but plays like these can illustrate just how important Embiid is to their fight for a spot at the top of the league's defensive rankings. Playing mistake free perimeter defense is difficult (especially with the new emphasis on freedom of movement from the officials), and the big man's size and recovery speed erases a lot of miscues from the guys in front of him.

Knowing that, Covington mentioned after the game that he's trying to discard some of his gambling tendencies on the defensive end in order to create a more consistent, cohesive structure for Philly on defense.

"I'm trying to [move] away from that, period," said Covington. "Trying to be more solid, gambling hurts us a lot on defense. We watch that a lot on film and try to be more solid this year to keep guys and front of us and not gamble as much...our goal is to be the top defense this year. We've shown a lot of growth but we still have a lot of room to improve."

Keep an eye on this as the small sample starts to turn into an early-season trend. Between playing an inexperienced guard and their rotation being marred with health issues at the moment, it's hard to get a read on whether this is a real point of concern yet.

(And even with how sloppy they've looked at times, the Sixers are still in the top-10 in defensive efficiency through three games. The modified shot clock rules are speeding up the games, so raw numbers are tough to compare to past seasons just yet.)

Another night, another mountain of Markelle Fultz data to sift through

We can dress it up however you choose, but the bottom line is that Markelle Fultz was not good for large stretches of the game against the Orlando Magic. The stat line (eight points, four rebounds, seven assists on 4/11 shooting) suggests he contributed a bit all over the floor, but that seems a little misleading.

The best thing I think you could say about Fultz's performance was that it looked like a more "normal" erratic game for a rookie/young player, and his last year and change has been anything but normal. He made a few outstanding hustle plays, toggled back and forth between bothersome and out of his depth on defense, and had some downright head-scratching misses around the basket.

Circling back to the aforementioned rough start to the game, it is not hard to figure out what's cramping Philadelphia's style at times on the offensive end of the floor. The impact of two non-shooters being on the floor together is obvious every time the Sixers roll out their new starting lineup. 

When Joel Embiid is in the process of catching the ball on the block, the defender matched up on your shooting guard should not be able to completely ignore him. And yet, we continue to see defenders drop back toward the paint and cramp that area of the court, paying little attention to what Fultz is doing on the perimeter.


What might be most telling about this phenomenon is how the team responds once Fultz gets his first rest of the night, Simmons specifically. On the first two possessions sans Fultz in the first quarter, Simmons converted layups at the rim. The same thing happened against Chicago on Thursday, with Simmons dunking the ball following a quick move to get by his defender.

Do trends like those hold over time? No way of knowing yet. But Fultz may be asked to take a much bigger role in the coming days either way, depending on the state of Simmons' health. He doesn't need to be Ray Allen or anything close to it, but he does need to show teams need to view him as a credible threat so he can best help the team's best player.

How serious is Simmons' injury?

Really, Simmons' exit from the game on Saturday night could end up being the biggest story from the night depending on how serious it is. Brown tried to quell concerns when I asked him about the issue after the game, but he admitted he was working from incomplete knowledge of the situation.

"I don’t believe it’s serious. I would say it sways more on precautionary, but I’m just giving my opinion without any information from our doctors," said Brown after the game. "I thought he played okay, but it was clear that something was going on. Despite that, I thought he was okay on the floor, and I just took him out and was informed that he wouldn’t be coming back. I think that he will be in position to make some comment I believe tonight, I’m not able to do that now."

You could tell almost right away that Simmons wasn't right. At first it looked like he simply wasn't up for a Saturday night game against a bad Magic team playing the second night of a back-to-back, but it quickly became clear it was about more than just mental prep. Simmons wasn't as fluid moving around as he tends to be, and you could see him grimace on the rare occasions he tried to explode for rebounds, finishes, etc.

He wasn't aided by the alteration of the pre-game routine, either. A Flyers matinee at the Wells Fargo Center took the arena staff a bit longer than usual to transition from, and both teams had to spend extra time waiting for the court to get put together as a result.

Before you go cursing Gritty and Claude Giroux for creating this situation, though, Brown admitted Simmons was feeling some pain prior to the game, and that his health was at the forefront of his mind to start the game.

"I was told that his back was sore before the game, and they had manipulated it — just for me to be aware of it so it wasn't a surprise," said Brown. "And when the game started, I was particularly paying attention to him, and it didn't feel right. It didn't look entirely right, and we decided to get him out after making that judgment."

If Simmons is to miss any time with the injury, the silver lining is that the team can feature Fultz as a true point guard and not have to do so much experimenting and lineup juggling to spread touches around between their distributors. With a back-to-back looming on Tuesday and Wednesday against the Pistons and Bucks, I wouldn't be surprised if the Sixers give him at least the night off in the front half just to make sure he's not overexerting while carrying the issue.

But no one should discount the impact Simmons' absence has on the rotation, with his combination of creative ability and defensive versatility tying a lot of things together for the Sixers on either end of the floor. It will be good for Fultz's development, but that is not necessarily the best thing for the team at this very moment.

The bottom line is Philadelphia pulled the game out, in spite of an injury to one of their two best players and a torrid shooting performance from their opponent. The Sixers have stated a goal of going to the NBA Finals and should be judged within that context, but as long as they can rack up wins against worse teams for now, they have plenty of time to clean things up and peak when it really matters.

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