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January 30, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers squander 21-point lead in loss to Magic

The Sixers missed a golden opportunity Monday night.

The Sixers turned the ball over 18 times in a brutal 119-109 loss to the Magic, squandering a 21-point lead with poor effort and defense in the final three quarters.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Anytime Matisse Thybulle has seven points in the first half of a basketball game, you basically have to treat that as found money. I'm under no illusion that he's on the verge of a breakthrough on that end of the floor, but we saw more from him in a single game than we might see over a period of weeks during a season, and that's worth celebrating. 

It wasn't just that Thybulle hit threes in this game, it's that he actively tried to hunt his own shot. After hitting a corner three in the first half, Thybulle found some confidence on offense, attempting (and making!) a three off of movement in the third quarter. There was even a play where he put his shoulder into a Magic player and tried to play a bit of bully bull inside the arc, coming up with everything aside from the finish at the rim after working his way there from the perimeter.

That alone represents progress. Thybulle's offensive problems are two-fold, as he hasn't shot well and he's timid about letting shots go. If he can at least find an aggressive streak, perhaps whatever work he has put in will win out over the long term.

Thybulle deserves plenty of credit for his defensive work which frequently empowered his offensive opportunities. The Magic are not exactly loaded with ballhandling and playmaking talent, and that's a style of team Thybulle is best suited to disrupt. Take Bol Bol, for example. He's widely known as a black hole on offense, and Thybulle had clearly read the scouting report, flooding Bol's airspace whenever he caught the ball. 

He was one of the few guys who draped himself in glory on Monday night, a couple of days after another strong outing against Denver.

The Bad

• Philadelphia looked to have this game well in control in the second quarter, running out to a 21-point lead and looking like a team who could spend most of the second half in towel-waving mode. But they took their foot off of the gas a bit in the late stages of the first half, allowing the Magic back into a game they probably should have had in the bag by then.

Their problems basically all came on defense, where attention to detail and effort came and went. James Harden had some possessions where he just watched as guys went by him or flashed to the perimeter for wide-open threes, and he had plenty of company in lethargic land. Montrezl Harrell was his typically disengaged self on that end, Tyrese Maxey was a little bit out of his depth against a super-sized team, and so on down the line.

(On the Maxey point — he was totally unequipped to defend former Sixers guard Markelle Fultz, even with Fultz completely disinterested in the three-point line. Fultz simply went through the smaller guard at times, picking up some tough points in the paint in the second half.)

I'm not sure you need to analyze this one much deeper than saying the effort sucked for at least half of this game. It would be one thing to concede open shots to non-shooters and say you're making a strategic decision, but the Sixers left almost everybody open at one point or another in this game. Harden was the biggest culprit, stuck on a bigger player and refusing to switch on several occasions, but it was a teamwide struggle.

• Turnovers were Philadelphia's other main issue after a hot start, some of which you credit to the Magic and some of which you chalk up to general sloppiness. Orlando was disruptive, getting into Embiid's airspace and catching him off guard several times throughout the night. But again, Philadelphia's lack of focus burned them in this department. Backcourt giveaways on inbounds passes, for example, should basically never happen, and the Sixers had a few turnovers simply trying to get the ball in after a made basket for Orlando.

The Sixers didn't respond well when they turned the ball over or failed to finish a possession with a make, their old transition defense problem roaring back to the forefront. Nearly a quarter of Orlando's shot attempts in this game came in transition, a bad sign for Philadelphia's ball security and offensive execution. They ran at basically every opportunity they had on live-ball rebounds, and the Sixers were only halfway interested in dealing with that.

After allowing the Magic to get back into this game, there was still an opportunity for Philadelphia to pull away or even out-talent Orlando, the game knotted at 97 when Embiid checked back in toward the start of the fourth quarter. By that point, though, the Magic seemed to sense that they had a real chance to win this game, and their desire to steal one on the road was palpable as they beat the Sixers to a bunch of loose balls that swung possessions and led to points. On top of that, the Sixers spent far too much of this game complaining to the officials about calls, giving the Magic odd-man rush opportunities while bickering with the refs.

Just an ugly game overall after a very promising start.

• Harden was probably due for a subpar outing. They shouldn't have needed an A+ Harden game to beat the Orlando Magic, and he didn't come close to delivering that sort of performance.

Of all the players in the lineup, he appeared to be most impacted by Orlando's funky lineup. Harden didn't get downhill basically at all in this game, left to make an impact solely with stepback threes and passes sprayed around the floor. He did plenty of smart playmaking as always, but his jumper wasn't there most of the evening, and on the rare occasion he did get to the hoop, Harden was often left wanting, his first points in the paint coming late in this game.

Add that on top of the defensive issues, and you have the recipe for a Sixers loss.

• I still do not understand the point of Harrell, and bringing him in during a big Orlando run was just a comical decision from Rivers. 

• The Sixers did not appear to understand they had a decent-sized lead to cut into late, and wasted several relatively open shot opportunities before eventually turning the ball over on the possession that basically decided the game. 

• This was basically the perfect setting for a letdown performance. Embiid was coming off of a banger against the man who beat him to the last two MVP awards, the Sixers were fresh off of a win against the No. 1 seed in the West, and Philadelphia's attention is almost wholly on the Eagles. Who would have noticed if they laid an egg against the Orlando Magic?

The Sixers at least decided to show up for the first quarter. Embiid was engaged defensively — well, mostly — from the opening tip onward, and that was just about all the Sixers needed to jump on a bad Magic team.

Following a pair of excellent blocks at the rim on Franz Wagner, Embiid made a concerted effort to run the floor and use his strength advantage for early seals in/around the paint. The big man also found some synergy with Tobias Harris early in this game, though not in the way you might expect — it was the big guy playing setup man for Harris, who served as the second option on offense for most of this one.

In theory, the Magic have the length to shrink the floor and bat balls away from Embiid when he tries to move toward the rim. In practice, his primary defender was always going to be giving up too much weight for that to make a difference. The Magic have a group of guys he has tortured throughout his career (Mo Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. specifically) and wasted no time getting to work in one-on-one battles. Even when the Magic sent a second defender or succeeded in catching him off guard with late help, Embiid often just shot himself out of trouble, killing Orlando along the baseline with silky touch.

If only that guy had been available for the second half. In spite of the fact that he had 30-10-5 at the end of the game, I thought this was a crappy second half from Embiid. Way too many sloppy turnovers and not enough killer instinct. 

The Ugly

• Doc Rivers pulled Embiid in the final minute of the first half, in what I would imagine was a move to protect him from a third foul. But Embiid's reaction to the sub was absolutely hilarious, looking up at the scoreboard in confusion before slowly walking over to the head coach.

• The game clocks at Wells Fargo Center somehow didn't get fixed between Saturday's win over the Nuggets and this game. Guess nobody was working on Sunday because of the Eagles, or something. Amateur hour!

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