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November 26, 2017

5 observations from Sixers vs. Magic

There may be no greater sign that times have changed in Philadelphia than the Sixers' 130-111 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday night. Ben Simmons' absence and a Joel Embiid illness would have been enough to kill any chance of winning for teams in previous years, and yet the Sixers emerged with a decisive, explosive victory when the dust had finally settled.

These are the games you need to win if you want to be a playoff team, and the home squad took care of business.

TJ McConnell fills some very big shoes

With his parents seated courtside near the Sixers' bench, there was more incentive than ever for McConnell to turn in a stellar performance. Ben Simmons' absence left a massive hole in Philadelphia's lineup, and with Joel Embiid battling an illness, the Sixers desperately needed a spark from their supporting cast.

In stepped McConnell, who almost messed around and put up a triple-double after getting the starting nod in Simmons' absence. 15-7-13 will have to do for the point guard, but there was no discounting his performance if you asked his teammates about it after the game. Joel Embiid joked that he was mad McConnell didn't try to pad his stats, and JJ Redick noted that the Sixers were able to continue playing at a breakneck pace because of McConnell.

That certainly shows up in the video.

Brett Brown told me before Saturday night's game that tempo is a big part of their core philosophy, and that Simmons missing a game wouldn't change that. Redick acknowledged how McConnell differs from Simmons after the game.

"He was pushing in transition, but it was a little bit different, whereas Ben when he pushes in transition, he can pretty much get to the rim any time that he wants, and TJ plays at that sort of pace with sort of the intention of drawing a second defender or to create confusion," said Redick. "A lot of times he doesn't even draw a second defender, we're just kind of cutting and moving around his penetration."

Watching McConnell probe the defense by dribbling under the basket has become a fairly common sight for Sixers fans. But the plays that pop on tape are the ones in which he punishes opponents for even a momentary lapse in judgment or effort. Elfrid Payton loses him on a defensive rebound opportunity, and McConnell soars past him to grab the board, then fires an excellent pass to get Redick an open three.

The Sixers will welcome Simmons back into the starting lineup as soon as he's ready, though it sure is nice to have a backup guard who you can count on to make the most of the opportunity to fill in. McConnell was relentless on both ends of the floor, and it seems like it'd be hard not to feed off that as a teammate.

A sick Joel Embiid is much better than no Joel Embiid

Absent from Saturday morning's shootaround, Embiid's status was up in the air until about an hour and 45 minutes before the game started. When you watched him in the first quarter, it became apparent why he'd stayed in  bed for a while Saturday. Less than five minutes into the game, he was doubled over in the paint during a pair of Magic free throws, desperately trying to catch his breath.

He confessed to a variety of ailments after the game—headache, fever, and difficulty breathing among them—but that didn't stop Embiid from putting together one dominant stretch in the second quarter, ripping the Magic apart limb-by-limb. Bismack Biyombo was left swiping at air after Embiid put the moves on him early in the quarter, and the big man celebrated the triumph as if he knew it was time to seize the moment.

Asked to explain how he came out and dominated that quarter after looking sluggish in the first, Embiid shrugged it off with a joke. "They gave me some type of magic," he said. "I drank that and I think I went on to have a good beginning of the second quarter."

Maybe this means we're just being spoiled by Embiid this year, but he put up 18 points, 14 rebounds, and six assists, and it felt like a pretty pedestrian game for Embiid. You can't really blame a sick man for not having his best stuff, of course, but it's staggering to see how high his floor is. Even the lackadaisical games tend to be excellent performances when judged against his peers.

The fire in his belly has at least a little bit to do with that. Following the game, Embiid was asked whether there was ever a real consideration to sit out of Saturday's game. No reasonable person would have shamed him if he was too ill to step on the court. Embiid sees it differently, though, and can't stand to think about missing games he doesn't have to.

"I want to play. I missed two years of basketball, and I don't ever want to be sitting because I'm sick," said Embiid. "I just want to be on the court, I'm happy to be on the court, I'm happy to be healthy and I want to stay there. I don't ever want to take any days off."

Just by having him on the court, the Sixers are a significantly better team. We likely don't get to talk about great performances from the likes of McConnell if it's not for Embiid drawing the attention he does. For instance, watch Orlando's entire defense shade toward Embiid as he moves toward the hoop late in the second quarter. His pass to McConnell in the corner causes a systemic breakdown, which leads to a Redick three moments later.

That's what a star can do for you.

JJ Redick on a heater is a sight to behold

Speaking of Redick, there could not have been a better time for him to have a big shooting night. McConnell earned five of his 13 assists by just giving Redick the ball and getting out of his way, and as he explained after the game, it's a simple game when you have a guy like Redick to kick the ball to. 

"He's a point guard's dream," said McConnell. "He's the best [shooter] I've ever played with, and anytime you see him open, you should get him the ball. It's a pretty smart thing to do."

We don't need to run back a montage of his makes from the night, but I do want to key on a specific sequence to show how Embiid's impact was felt on Redick's night as well. On a simple handoff, Embiid drops the ball off to Redick and then gets his stance just a little bit wider, making it nearly impossible for Terrence Ross to get anywhere near Redick as he rises up to shoot.

A naysayer might call this a moving screen, but let's ignore that possibility for a second. This sort of play illustrates how Embiid can help out Redick on offense without being doubled on the low block. Leveraging his size to buy Redick some room has the potential to pay huge dividends, and the same will continue to be true when applied to the rest of Philadelphia's roster.

Redick does not need much space to get his shots off. Even when defenses appear to have snuffed out a Redick pass or shot, he has perfected his craft to a degree that he turns expectations against defenders, pass-faking and pump-faking his way to easier buckets. So if you hand him space like Embiid can, forget about it.

Robert Covington's improvement attacking the paint

If you watched Covington play at all the last few years, the sight of him barrelling into an opposing defender in the paint became all too common. The Sixers will ultimately live with that if it means they're getting three-point shooting and elite defense from Covington, but an increase in off-the-dribble productivity would take him to a new level.

As of late, we're seeing some increased craft in Covington's game around the basket. On plays where we used to see him careening into defenders and without any semblance of a plan, now we see him going around defenders or stopping short of them, playing with a better sense of the court.

On a fast break in the third quarter, Orlando's Aaron Gordon even prepared for the possibility of Covington running him over in transition. But just when it looks like he's about to send both guys flying, Covington pulls up and hits Dario Saric underneath the basket for an easy bucket.

Covington only needs to have a functional game to compliment his three-point shooting, and he looks a lot closer to that ideal than he ever has. He is shooting over 61 percent on shots from within 10 feet, a mark that represents a 10-percent improvement over last year's numbers. This tracks with the improvement at finishing through contact that is showing up when you watch him play.

He would be a valuable player without any craft in the painted area. This simply makes Covington an even bigger weapon.

The return of The Homie

It would be a crime not to acknowledge Saric's performance on Saturday, with the hybrid-forward taking on more responsibility with Simmons nursing an elbow issue. He flashed some of the talent that made him a Rookie of the Year contender last season, putting up a clean 21-7-4 line on 8/13 shooting from the field. There were equal parts thunder and lightning, with Saric doing the dirty work on the glass and playmaking in a manner we haven't seen much this year.

One of Saric's issues this season has simply been the requirements of his role. Playing in lineups alongside Simmons and Embiid, the ball is out of his hands much more than it was last season, and there's not as much time to showcase his swiss-army knife game. It often comes down to nothing more than how his shooting touch looks on a given night.

Without Simmons, Saric had more chances to freelance and hunt shots that weren't above-the-break threes. He played with a bit more pep in his step, beating more athletic defenders by making decisive reads with the ball in his hands.

There's no way to measure this, but it feels like Saric is a totally different player when he gets it going early and is locked in mentally. Despite shooting just 1/4 from three on Saturday, there was never a point where you felt Saric was passing up shots for no good reason. He played with a purpose on and off the ball, and in a manner similar to McConnell, made the Magic pay for any lapse in attention on the court.

The numbers do not paint a pretty picture for Saric this year. He is shooting just 37.4 percent from the field, and his outside shooting has fallen back down to earth after a hot start to the month of November. But it is nice for both Saric and the team to get reminders of the type of player he is capable of being, even when the jumper isn't falling.