February 01, 2023
Joel Embiid and James Harden were the two best players on the floor, and that was about all the Sixers needed to bounce back with a 105-94 win over the Magic.
Here's what I saw.
• With about four minutes left in the first quarter, Embiid tried to take advantage of Wendell Carter Jr. dangling an arm in front of him. When the officials didn't give him the call, he made sure to give them an earful after the next possession came to a stop, unhappy that he hadn't drawn Carter's third foul of the period.
Rather than sulking about it and trying the same tactics the next time down the floor, Embiid decided it was time to get on the block. In the midst of a season where he has primarily operated from the elbows and attacked head-on, Embiid got back to old school, post-up basketball. And let me tell you, the Orlando Magic are not exactly equipped to stop him down there.
In fact, I would argue that Orlando is strangely unequipped to deal with Embiid when you consider how big their roster is overall. Carter Jr. and Moe Wagner are two guys he has absolutely destroyed throughout his career, and those are Orlando's top two options at center right now. Embiid certainly noticed — the final few minutes of the opening period were a post-up clinic, the big man just dropping his shoulder and bulldozing his way to the rim. Wagner flopped so hard at one Embiid post move that he nearly slid himself from underneath the rim all the way to the Sixers' bench. Even for a guy that strong, I'm pretty sure that's not possible without a bit of simulation.
Regardless, it was a game where Embiid was the biggest guy on the floor and played like it. Toward the end of the second quarter, Philadelphia has a possession with three different offensive rebounds, including two for Embiid, the Sixers eventually scoring on an Embiid dunk with Magic bodies dropping to the floor. That, more than Embiid putting his butt on the block, is what you want to see. The Sixers are going to be giving up some speed and athleticism the way the team is constructed, but they should be able to punish teams on the glass enough to make them hesitant to get out and run too soon.
But you could argue the headline of this game was Embiid's defensive effort. This is one of the best individual defensive outings I think we've seen from him in a while, the combination of length and activity borderline shocking at times. Orlando tried to challenge him in the paint throughout the night, only to think better of it at the last moment. Pot committed at that point, Magic players tossed a lot of shots harmlessly off of the glass or the rim, or else they risked Embiid swatting their attempt into the front row.
As it turns out, the Sixers look a lot closer to a competent defensive team when their best defensive player is playing hard and using his voice to direct the rest of the team.
• This was a methodical, efficient night for James Harden in the halfcourt, which is always great to see. Early in the game, Orlando played Philadelphia's pick-and-roll basically daring Harden to get to the paint, loading up against Embiid and hoping Harden wouldn't kill them as a scorer. And frankly, he didn't — but Harden's reads as a passer from the paint were so good that it didn't matter. He consistently put the Magic in trouble, sucking in whatever help he could before spraying passes to all corners of the court.
Consistently getting to the paint off the dribble would have been a huge challenge for Harden against Orlando a year ago. Hell, it was a challenge for Harden for most of Monday night's loss, and he was able to shake off that bad outing relatively quickly.
Harden was effective at picking his spots as an outside shooter, too, embracing the looks he got as a catch-and-shoot guy while showing off that signature stepback jumper that powered him to MVP campaigns in the past. If Orlando's length is a potential deterrent on drive, their size ends up being an advantage for Harden on the perimeter, where he rocked taller defenders back and forth all night before creating the separation he needed for a look at the basket.
If Harden had a better night in transition, this would have been one of my favorite offensive performances he has had all year, and one of the best games he has played in a Sixers uniform. As it was, it was a good blend of old Harden and, well, "old" Harden, and he served as a perfectly suitable co-star next to Embiid all night.
• A corner three for P.J. Tucker, hooray!
• Another very good, versatile performance for Tobias Harris on offense. Most of his night was spent working the area between the corner three and the rim, with Harris using his reputation as a shooter to blow past quite a few Magic players down the baseline. But rather than locking in on trying to score, Harris' head was on a swivel, the vet picking up a handful of assists on the move.
• Monday's game was all about Orlando's youthful energy vs. Philadelphia's veteran apathy. After a quarter of good Sixers basketball, youth won out, with the Magic ripping and running for most of the game. That was something you had to expect coming into the rematch, but Orlando managed to tear them up on the break anyway.
The Sixers did not exactly put on a transition clinic of their own. Harden has juiced their offensive numbers in a big way and is typically an incisive passer on the break, but he was sloppy with the ball in transition on Wednesday night, giving back a few possessions on reads where I'm not sure what he saw. The low-bouncer to Harris down the wing and the lofted pass that Cole Anthony stole around midcourt stood out as lowlights for the evening, but his ball security was horrific on the break, and that was part of what allowed Orlando to hang around in this game.
• You know things have been going bad for Montrezl Harrell when his first shift in the game lasts a litle more than two minutes. He has been nailed on as the backup to Embiid recently, and while there was a run where that looked like a fine-enough decision, we are far removed from it at this point. Harrell's defensive wandering has been absolutely dreadful recently, and whatever he lacks in off-ball attentiveness has been compounded by bad, foul-prone defense when he's on the ball.
Rivers was noticeably unhappy with Harrell when he got beaten a couple of times in quick succession by Moe Wagner, and the second time being a travel did nothing to change Rivers' mind. It was Paul Reed time from there, and, well, he didn't exactly light the world on fire. But at least Reed pretended to try to be in the right place on defense, which is more than you could say about his counterpart.
Rivers has staggered his lineups lately to have Maxey as something close to a true sixth man, tying most of Embiid and Harden's minutes together. That being the case, you don't really have to factor Harden's chemistry with Harrell in pick-and-rolls into the equation when setting the rotation. Reed hasn't convinced anyone he's up to the job, but at least there's some theoretical upside to getting him more minutes/experience. We know what Harrell is. At the least, we're overdue for Harrell to have a seat and collect himself for a few games.
• This was the rare game where you could argue neither De'Anthony Melton nor Tyrese Maxey deserved to start. Both players spent most of the night stinking it up in one way or another, unable to get a shot to drop regardless of where it came from on the floor. Melton was dreadful finishing at the rim (as tends to be the case) and compounded that with a bunch of clanged jumpers on catch-and-shoot looks. Maxey's shots had a higher degree of difficulty overall, No. 0 tasked with leading a hapless second unit, but they don't award more or less points based on how tough they were.
Though they are in different categories on defense, I thought each had issues throughout the night. Melton got blown past several times early in the game, even though he's ostensibly in the starting lineup to help generate more stops. And Maxey was at the center of what felt like an avalanche of miscommunications, the Sixers botching switches and rotations that gifted the Magic cleaner looks at the rim.
• I would pull my hair out maybe once a week watching Tobias Harris rebound the basketball if I were coaching this team.
• There have definitely been times where Matisse Thybulle has deserved to have a quick hook this season, but felt like Rivers punished him for a Magic run in the second quarter that had basically nothing to do with his play and everything to do with the backup center disaster. Tough break.
• Working clocks for the basketball game, what a concept!
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