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November 25, 2022

Instant observations: Strong second half earns Sixers a win vs. Magic

Sixers NBA

The Sixers got a big night from Shake Milton and strong contributions from a number of role players in a 107-99 win over the Magic on Friday night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If the Sixers take anything positive from this run of games with a shorthanded lineup, they should feel good about their options to give them offense off of the bench. There was a lot of yelling about Philadelphia's lack of bench scoring early in the season, but Shake Milton and De'Anthony Melton are clearly capable of packing a punch there, they just don't get a ton of opportunity to do so with the group fully healthy.

Once again, the fill-in backcourt did an excellent job to make up for the injured starters. Melton has been a sensational first-half player for the Sixers over the last couple of games, carrying them as a scorer during excellent shooting starts. He came out firing against Orlando, hitting a trio of threes on some pretty difficult attempts, knocking down contested jumpers where it looked like he barely felt the pressure from his defender. His lack of conscience can hurt him (and the team) at times, but they've needed his confidence in this setup, the Sixers are hardly in a position to pass up the few open shots they can create.

I would say the bigger surprise recently has been Milton, who was buried in the rotation and hasn't been particularly impressive over the past couple of seasons. It was fair to wonder whether his moment in the NBA had come and gone, with his shot going missing and opportunities dwindling as the roster changed and he struggled to stay healthy. He has used this run of games without the starters to restate his case for playing time, and he has come through in a big way, offering a combination of playmaking and scoring they'll covet even when everybody is back in the lineup.

Seeing Milton find the shooting touch has been pretty cool because he was doing some decent work inside the arc even before those shots started dropping, throwing wrap passes around defenders after getting into the paint. Forcing teams to play up on him as a shooter has opened things up inside the arc for Milton, who spent a lot of Friday's game penetrating and kicking out to open shooters, often to excellent results.

Here's a rarity from my perspective — I thought Shake Milton did some excellent work as an off-ball defender, disrupting Orlando possessions with well-timed help. Though the Sixers struggled with dribble penetration as a general rule, Milton did a nice job of rotating and using his length when he had a chance to make a play, bailing out a teammate or two who struggled to keep bodies in front of them. 

Can't imagine there's much more you can ask for out of the Milton/Melton combo recently. They're probably due for some clunkers, but they've done their best to keep the team afloat.

• Georges Niang has been absurdly good off of the bench for Philadelphia this year, and that trend has continued even without Harden and Embiid setting him up for his looks. The quality of the shot doesn't even feel like it has mattered for him. Niang is canning contested corner threes, wide-open threes from trail positions, shots off of curls, everything has a chance to drop. It's no surprise that teams are desperate to close out on him at all times.

Where Niang has set himself apart this year is his play off-the-dribble, exploiting the attention he's drawing on the perimeter. Niang has been more effective than ever attacking the basket, punishing guys whenever they lean the wrong way while he's attacking the basket. Friday night, he even overcame some severe — and I mean severe — physical disadvantages in one-on-one matchups, with Niang using deception to get Bol Bol off of his case before depositing a scoop shot in the paint.

He has just been a great connective piece for the Sixers, and I was not convinced he'd even stay in the rotation coming into the season. Hell of a start he is off to.

• Tobias Harris tends to have good outings against teams he previously played for, which is a combination of a handful of factors — the Pistons and Magic haven't been worldbeaters in recent years, but he's also clearly comfortable within the confines of their arenas, and good shooters will tell you those good sightlines can make a big difference.

This game was more about Harris exploiting some weaknesses in how Orlando is constructed. With all their size and length, the Magic are still susceptible to being beaten off of the dribble, especially if you can play lineups that draw their shotblockers away from the paint. When the Sixers spread the floor out and let Harris attack Magic players off-the-dribble, he consistently got separation and kept trailing defenders on his hip, doing well to pile up points at the rim. Harris has had his struggles around the basket in the past, and it was good to see him change that pattern against a team uniquely equipped to make life miserable for you there.

Harris was also a force of positivity in transition, making smart reads with the ball whenever he had a chance to lead the Sixers on the break. His ability to grab-and-go has not been as prevalent since he came to Philly, with Harris meant to fill his lane or serve as a play-finisher alongside more talented (or even quicker) playmakers. This stretch has allowed him to get more reps carrying the ball himself in transition, and he has been able to find shooters and get Philly moving at a decent enough clip.

And who doesn't love some tough shotmaking in crunch time? 

Harris was there to supply it during a couple of thorny moments, and he has been huge for Philadelphia in the two wins they've picked up without Embiid this week.

• Furkan Korkmaz is the most chaotic player on the team and that's really saying something when you consider that Paul Reed and Danuel House Jr. are both on the roster. At least he made some threes in this one.

• Once again, I hear all your complaints about Doc Rivers as an endgame coach, but this group has given everything they have while missing a ton of firepower recently. There have been some nice wrinkles thrown in that you can specifically credit to coaching — a few plays of zone that led to horrible Orlando possessions and a turnover, for example — and the team has largely run smoothly in spite of running things through a group of backups at most positions.

Staying above water during this stretch is an achievement even if you discount a win over the Magic. They are finding ways to win, and the coach has pushed a lot of the right buttons.

• It was certainly not the 19/10 game he had against Brooklyn, but Paul Reed did a lot of Paul Reed things before fouling out with two and change to play. The flashes of progress are there, particularly on the offensive end, where he is showing more patience around the rim than ever before. Everything else, from the second-effort plays on the glass to the bothersome length at the rim, remains in place. He earned the long run of minutes he got in the fourth quarter.

(The pass he threw to Niang for an assist late in the fourth quarter is maybe the best pass he has ever made in his career.)

The Bad

• You probably wouldn't have to think too hard about the size discrepancy between these teams if Joel Embiid was available to play. The possessions that ended with Magic players scoring over smaller Sixers would have been much harder to pull off with Philadelphia's seven-footer patrolling the paint, Sixers players able to pass assignments off to their guy at the rim.

The problem on Friday night is that the Sixers allowed that to happen and allowed far too much first-half dribble penetration from a team short on guard play. Sure, they have some big point-forward types who you have to tip your cap to sometimes, with Paolo Banchero doing damage to just about everybody this year. But the Sixers were letting just about everybody get to the paint in this one, and that's not a recipe for success when you're already going into the game thinking you're going to lose the size battle.

They eventually cleaned this up, thankfully.

• I'm not inclined to get mad at Montrezl Harrell for struggling to finish if he's matched up with a guy who is considerably taller and longer than he is at the rim. The Magic surround the rim with serious shot-blocking potential, so it's going to be difficult to catch an entry pass in the paint and immediately go up with it unless Orlando has blown an assignment.

But Harrell having moments of hesitation down there is a bit of a problem, because the Sixers probably don't want to have to live through him as a playmaker unless it's an absolute necessity. Harrell's pauses around the paint often allowed the Magic to make a play on the ball or at least force some wonky passes out to the perimeter. When he was running the break and rolling hard in pick-and-rolls, he looked closer to the old Harrell, but they have to tap into that more if he's going to be stuck in the mud otherwise.

• I am once again struggling to decide whether I should focus on PJ Tucker's complete inability to hit a shot or his ability to fluster offensive weapons of all sorts. Banchero had some nice moments in this game, but I thought Tucker did enough to bother him and stop the rookie sensation from really getting rolling.

But please, PJ, make a layup sometime soon. 

The Ugly

• The clear-cut "burn the tape of this broadcast" moment of this game came at the very end of the second quarter, the Sixers in a position to tie the game before halftime. Tucker caught a pass and had a chance to score a pretty easy layup, and, well, you guys have all seen what it looks like when he tries to score recently. Tucker smoked the opportunity, and off went the Magic.

But it was Melton who really screwed things up, No. 8 fouling Banchero on a 3/4 court attempt for no discernible reason. Taking a foul in that spot, at that spot, with a single second left on the clock is about as dumb as it gets, and the Magic picked up a pair of extra points before both teams retreated to the locker room. All you could do was just roll your eyes at the sequence of events. 

• Was this game being broadcast in 240p? Good grief. This seems to happen a few times a year in different road arenas, and it kills my eyes every single time. Felt like I was watching a game on Prism. Do they not have usable cameras in Florida? 

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