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November 27, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers cruise to blowout win over Magic

Shake Milton poured in a season-high 29 points in a demolition of the Orlando Magic, with the Sixers racing to a 133-103 win that was never close in the second half.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• As we saw in Friday night's game against Orlando, the key to getting quality looks is all about attacking them off of the dribble. You wouldn't think a team boasting this much size would be most vulnerable in the painted area, but this wall of giant defenders has struggled to defend in space, opening an opportunity for the Sixers to score with an undermanned lineup.

Everyone — and I mean everyone — seemed quite aware of this throughout Sunday night's game, because the Sixers went at Magic defenders off-the-bounce the entire night. That didn't mean abandoning the three-point line, but using rim attacks to open up even further opportunities from beyond the arc.

Once again, we have to highlight the exploits of Shake Milton, who continues to push all the right buttons as one of the leaders in the backcourt. In total control of the game during an excellent first half, Milton played an almost perfect half. He scored in the halfcourt, he scored in early offense, he hit catch-and-shoot threes, he set up his teammates, and he even scored on a lob from De'Anthony Melton, using a Montrezl Harrell screen to score an easy layup without needing to come down with the ball.

His biggest contribution has just been understanding the situation and what the moment calls for. Milton has done a great job of doing what people expect a "point guard" to do for a team, reading the floor and reacting instantly to maximize possession. Milton also looks good physically, which has been sort of a rarity for him in recent years as nagging injuries have popped up. He has had enough burst to split defenders and get to the paint, nearly always making the right decision when he gets there.

Seeing him play this well inspires a lot of questions about how they might use him once they have their starters back. Milton probably isn't going to be the full-on sixth man he was when they pushed for a No. 1 seed in Doc Rivers' first season. But perhaps they can buy their starting guards more rest than we thought while watching the bench group early this season. By hitting shots and looking so good with the ball in his hands, Milton has shown he can fit alongside just about anybody in that backcourt, filling whatever role they might need him to fill there. 

• Tobias Harris has had a big week with the other big-name guys out of the lineup, and this performance against the Magic was arguably his best yet, with due respect to the second-half effort against Brooklyn. He did not allow Orlando a moment of peace starting from tip-off, finding every gap in the defense that was there to exploit.

The game has looked very easy for Harris recently, and his unselfishness with the ball in his hands has helped create this run of free-flowing, team-centric basketball. Harris would have been well within his rights to pull rank and dominate usage throughout this stretch, but rather than trying to be the all-consuming force at the center of things, he has done well to blend in and out as necessary. It's an extension of the work he has done alongside the stars all season, and it has allowed them to keep flowing as a group in the absence of said stars.

That said, it has been great to see Harris playing a bit more bully ball recently. The Magic aren't the easiest team to find a crossmatch against, but the Sixers did an excellent job of finding the smallest defender on the floor and working to get Harris the ball with that exact guy on his back. A few dribbles and some backing down later, the Sixers would cash in a mid-post jumper and get back for another possession on defense.

In good times and bad, I think Harris' contributions have been underrated this season. 

• De'Anthony Melton is at least sort of good at everything you need to do on a basketball floor to win games. The Sixers have rarely had players who are good at even two different things at the same time, so watching him go to work is jarring at times. This is allowed? What a revelation.

If Milton has been the offense-leading guy in the backcourt for Philly, it has been left for Melton to do just about everything else. There he is blocking a shot by flying into position to help a teammate at the perfect moment, and then leading the break the other way as the Sixers try to score in transition. His finishing at the rim, which has been a mixed bag for most of the season, was on point in this one, Melton finishing off opportunities he had worked hard to create against the Magic.

He is the sort of player you can never have enough of. Still trying to figure out why the Grizzlies traded him. Doubt we'll ever get a good answer on that one.

• Even when he has his low moments, I understand why people want to see Paul Reed on the floor. You can put him out there for 15 seconds or 15 minutes, and you're going to get the same level of energy for that entire shift. At the end of a long run in Sunday's first half, 15 minutes by the time he sat down, Reed was still outworking, outrunning, out scrapping every single player on the Magic roster, helping the Sixers in their quest to blow this game open.

The good news? We are well past the point of Reed needing to win with hustle alone. In a groove thanks to the expanded role he's played recently, Reed is making plays at both ends of the floor with a level of precision previously unseen. When the ball hits his hands, you're no longer worried that he's going to do some crazy freelancing or dribble 15 times before turning it over, with Reed more and more aware of his limitations (and strengths) with each passing day. Watching him block a shot, pick the ball up around the logo, and coast for an easy dunk by himself should make Reed swell with pride when he watches it back on tape.

And then there was his highlight reel effort at the expense of Bol Bol, Reed getting his defender to jump just enough before dropping the hammer:

The Sixers had outscored the Magic by 20 points by the time his first run of the game ended, and while he wasn't the only guy performing during that run, it has become increasingly common for good things to happen with Reed on the floor. They look to be in a great spot when Embiid returns to the lineup.

• Furkan Korkmaz attended the Marco Belinelli school of only making high-difficulty shots, or made a deal with the devil that promised him he'd only make off-balance, hotly-contested looks. Otherwise, I have no real explanation for how he gets some of these to drop.

Roughly 30 seconds after he rocketed a pass off of Shake Milton's tibia from a few feet away, Korkmaz managed to end the first quarter on a high note with this ridiculous make at the horn:

The flair is appreciated around these parts.

• Danuel House Jr. has been pretty scatterbrained during his brief tenure with the Sixers, but lord have mercy, that dude dunks the ball with reckless abandon. He had a hellacious dunk in transition in the first half — I was glad he was able to walk the subsequent fall off — and he followed that up with a great move against a closing Bol Bol, turning the corner and punching another one to the delight of his teammates:

Pressed into starting duty for the second half as a result of PJ Tucker's ankle, I thought House gave Philadelphia some of his best minutes of the season. As someone who is constantly amazed that NBA players don't step out of bounds in the corner more often, it was remarkable watching him launch a bunch of step-back corner threes without turning the ball over.

• The Magic are not good, and we can qualify the pair of wins against them accordingly, but we do not need to downplay the team going 3-1 this past week with all of the injuries they have. Even the loss featured a competitive effort from Philly in the second half of a back-to-back, their legs clearly shot as they ran out of energy down the stretch against Charlotte.

Knowing they don't have the star power to win a game on talent alone, the Sixers have shown up with the proper energy every night over the last week, ready to play purposeful, team-first basketball from the opening tip onward. There have been players who have emerged as their best in these games, but it has rarely (if ever) felt like someone lost sight of his teammates, the group hunting for the best possible shot at all times. They did not put their heads down and pout when the stars went down, and instead produced an inspiring run of basketball over the last week.

Again, Doc Rivers deserves a lot of credit here, because these guys looked like a well-oiled machine on Sunday night. Regardless of the opponent, we have seen a handful of these miniseries for the Sixers already this season, and every time prior to this one, the winner of the first game dropped the follow-up. The Sixers not only beat this group twice in a row, they absolutely pasted them in the second game, taking advantage of every Orlando weakness en route to the win. Great performances up and down the lineup helped, but they were obviously well-prepared, too.

If Rivers could somehow bottle up what he's gotten from the depth guys as they bring the stars back, they will really be onto something. 

The Bad

• Legitimately no nitpicking to be done from me. You blow a team out like this down your three best players, and you get the night off from criticism. Anyone walking away from that game less than thrilled about it needs their head examined.

The Ugly

• Tucker did not play the entire second half due to what the Sixers called, "left ankle soreness," so we'll find out tomorrow exactly how serious that is when they suit up for the Atlanta game. Could just be a precaution, could be a problem to monitor in the days to come.

• Loved Alaa Abdelnaby giving a shout-out to Tyler Adams during the broadcast. Guy has been crushing it at the World Cup.

• Oh great, two consecutive Sixers games broadcast in borderline standard definition quality. What a delight for the eyes.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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