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February 25, 2018

5 observations from Sixers vs. Magic

Saturday night was a tremendously weird night for Sixers basketball. Sixers-Magic featured a 5:00 p.m. tipoff, too late for a matinee but early enough for the retired folks in Florida to make it through the first half, and it took a while for everyone to settle in. That includes the home team — they got off to a brutal start against a hapless Orlando team, and you had to wonder if they were going to cough away a winnable game against another bad team.

But the Sixers shook off the rough start and ended up running away with it, besting the Magic 116-105 when all was said and done. The final score doesn't do the result justice, as the starters were all pulled with a 20-point lead and about six minutes left in the game.

So how did they get there? Glad you asked!

Richaun Holmes makes his triumphant return

His play on Saturday was not the most important of the evening, but Holmes' inclusion in the lineup was the most noteworthy. Kept on the bench during a brutal Amir Johnson performance against the Bulls on Thursday, it didn't appear Holmes was going to be much of a factor in the rotation moving forward.

So it was a surprise to all of us on press row and those in the stands when Holmes checked in the game with just over six-and-a-half minutes to play in the first quarter. There couldn't have been a better time for it, because the Sixers sputtered out of the gate and needed the sort of energy a player like Holmes brings to the table.

Brett Brown and Holmes himself would go on to say his inclusion in the lineup was planned before the game, and the perfect timing was a happy accident.

"That's an example of just trying to keep somebody alive. We understand there are times we will need him, when we play him we see what he brings to the table," said Brown. "Richaun is my version of, somebody would anoint a wing player as lightning in a bottle type of guy. He's a spark plug, he's instant energy, a dunk or a block, his rim run stuff and A-to-B stuff from rim-to-rim is elite. We're trying to grow his interior defense. I just think when you go to Richaun, you do that in the back of your mind, [knowing] he can provide that type of energy."

To Holmes' credit, the part of his game Brown highlighted as a weakness was not one on Saturday night, at least not to the same degree it typically is. Holmes competed as he always does, but he played more within himself on defense and prioritized attacking the boards instead of overextending in unnecessary situations. He has the type of athleticism that can impact a game on both ends, and learning to channel that is critical to his development.

Early in his first quarter run, Holmes picked up a foul jostling with former Sixers center Nikola Vucevic in the post, and it looked like his propensity for picking up cheap ones would bite him again. But when Orlando went back to Vucevic there immediately out of the side-out, Holmes stood firm in the post and guided Vucevic into an unforced error.

The highlight dunks and primal screams are more entertaining, but this is much more critical to Holmes' NBA future. As I mentioned following the Chicago game, I'd love to see Brown mix Holmes into the rotation more and make the backup center gig more competitive.

Joel Embiid is absurdly dominant

What does it say about Embiid's run of play that a 28-point, 14-rebound performance on 10/17 shooting is nothing out of the ordinary? How is it that in his second year, dominance is expected, and not hoped for?

Despite how mundane the stat lines have become, what happens between the lines is still something special. Embiid pulls something different out of his bag of tricks every night, whether it's flying across the lane for a ridiculous weakside block or unleashing teardrops on opposing big men.

If you want a guy who can catch an entry pass, take one dribble and hop step around Aaron Gordon for an easy dunk, Embiid has you covered.

If you want a guy who can drop a one-legged, Dirk Nowitzki-esque fadeaway on the offensive end, only to shatter an opponent's dreams on defense, look no further.

I'm not sure anyone in Philadelphia — and I include myself here — appreciates how special the development of Embiid has been. He is, with what is probably less than 150 total basketball games played in his entire life, one of the best players in the NBA, and he reaches that top level consistently.

This is supposed to be something you have to wait years for, and yes, technically Sixers fans had to do so while Embiid was a constant fixture on the training table. But there was no grace period when he finally got here, no typical young guy struggles for a man with little basketball experience. From the moment he started playing NBA minutes, Embiid has been one of the game's most impactful players, and with health (knock on wood) and more minutes to his name, Embiid is producing at a level few players have ever reached.

Of that list of all-time great big men, only Shaq was able to do it before the age of 25, and if Embiid can finish the regular season with those averages in place, he would be the youngest player of that illustrious group, a mere 10 days younger than when O'Neal managed the feat in 1996-97.

The aim in this space is to go beyond the numbers, but sometimes you have to let them speak for themselves. Embiid is absolutely tearing teams apart at the moment, and he's making it look fairly easy.

Robert Covington got going again, finally

There is no bigger X-factor in Philadelphia's potential playoff run than Covington. If he comes anywhere close to the three-point shooting he showed off at the beginning of the season, the Sixers are going to be damn near impossible to beat. At this point, they would probably just take a smidge of consistency, and Covington came through against the Magic on Saturday.

Covington hit four of his nine attempts from deep on Saturday night, which naturally inspired some questions for his coach about what it means to have Covington going. It's a perfectly natural instinct, particularly because Covington hit some shots with hands in his face, a sign that his confidence and his game is flowing.

But Brown downplayed the significance of his shooting after the game, choosing instead to focus on what Covington always brings instead of what he sometimes brings.

"It's probably the thing that gets, at times maybe scrutinized the most unfairly," said Brown. "He's also sort of a glue guy in relation to the culture we're building. He's been with me a little less than Joel has, Joel and I have been with each other the longest, and so I see some things that really don't show up on a stat sheet that I just feel as the coach."

His point is well-taken, and the Sixers certainly benefit from Covington's presence on the floor if you take a cursory look at the On/Off numbers. But they hit a totally different level when he's producing on offense, and they need a lot more of this Covington in order to make some noise in the playoffs.

JJ Redick had a quietly great game

He has had louder and more noticeable performances as a member of the 76ers, but this was one of the better performances Redick has offered up in a while, for reasons that had little to do with his shooting.

Redick only managed two attempts from three on the evening, so a lot of his damage was done as a scorer inside the arc and a playmaker. He hit the Magic with several nice dribble moves into jumpers in the first half, and that forced Orlando to shade coverage toward him when he'd turn the corner with the ball. When that happens, Redick has several talented teammates who can take advantage of the extra space, which led to easy buckets.

With the addition of a few more attempts from deep, this would have been the gold standard of Redick games in a Sixers uniform. He didn't turn the ball over once, he was hyper-efficient on the attempts he did take, and he played his usual brand of solid, if unspectacular defense on the other end.

When Bryan Colangelo and his staff offered Redick a Scrooge McDuck vault of money to join their up-and-coming team, this is the sort of game they probably envisioned. As the young stars begin to strengthen their grip on the team, Redick is settling into the perfect complimentary role. 

It sure helps to have bench scoring

Aside from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who earned himself a nice -9 in the box score in garbage time, every single bench player who got minutes on Saturday was on the positive side of the ledger. That simply doesn't happen for the Sixers, and they are near impossible to beat if they get good minutes from their backups.

A lot of this stems from the work of Marco Belinelli, who has finally given the Sixers the scoring punch they need off the bench. He wasn't great from downtown, making only one of his three shots from beyond the arc, but Belinelli managed to pick up 15 points in 27 minutes of action, providing exactly what he was brought in to do.

This was a more typical Belinelli game than what we saw in his Sixers debut, and you saw the good and bad all rolled into one package. The turnover number (four) was high, but it represents the erratic, sometimes confounding nature of his game. When he gets overextended in an effort to create, bad things tend to happen.

Still, he offers a scoring versatility the Sixers haven't had all year, and he was active as an off-ball cutter and runner even when he fumbled entry passes thrown in his direction. The Sixers have needed a skill set like his all year, and if they had simply had Belinelli as an option from the start of the year, it probably would have been worth at least a couple more wins for the season.

In any case, they're fortunate to have him now.

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