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May 14, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers clinch No. 1 seed in East with blowout win over Magic

The Sixers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 122-97 blowout win over the Orlando Magic on Friday night, earning homecourt advantage until at least the NBA Finals. Bring on the playoffs. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Performances like this from Seth Curry are what make it so infuriating when he retreats to his shell and refuses to shoot the open jumpers that come his way. He has plenty of tricks in his bag on and off the ball, and often times it's just a matter of getting him to use those tools. Easier said than done, I guess.

In any case, Curry made easy work of Orlando's assortment of young and/or bad perimeter players, throwing some wicked crossovers at players who were (evidently) susceptible to getting their ankles broken. Curry turned several broken possessions into buckets that were easier than they had any right to be, helping to unstick the gears of an offense that needed it pretty badly early on.

There are only so many times I can write something to this effect this season, but you can get a good read of the team by just looking at how Curry is operating. When he's playing with confidence and attacking guys off-the-dribble, they're tough to beat. When he's passive, teams have an easier time recovering to their perimeter players after doubling their stars in the post, which has drastic effects for the offense.

Good Curry was back on Friday night. It was not a coincidence that the Good Sixers were, too.

• This wasn't an overwhelming performance from Ben Simmons, but I thought he was the guy who helped turn this from a close-ish (but not very competitive) game into an easy win and a borderline victory lap for most of the second half. When he joined the all-bench group early in the second quarter, Simmons' passing in transition was sublime, turning the frequent stops Philly got against Orlando into the easy offense they weren't producing in the halfcourt.

Simmons' ability to get them running and pile up points in transition might not matter as much in the slower grind of the playoffs, but it's a quality I think can be underrated during a long regular season. It's the difference between being locked in crunch-time battles and coasting through a blowout in the waning moments of a ballgame.

• This was a steady, smooth performance from Shake Milton. Orlando didn't offer much resistance when Milton was running the offense — or when anyone else was running the offense, for that matter — but he took every inch they gave him and made something of it. Sometimes all it takes to have a good game is to take the easy wins and not screw things up otherwise.

In fact, that's almost exactly what you want your lead guard off of the bench to do on a given night unless they're a high-level scorer who you just want chucking up shots at all times. Milton has had issues finding a sweet spot this season, either because of his own issues or the personnel on the floor around him. The less erratic he is, the less erratic the team is likely to be in general.

• I just don't see how you can keep Tyrese Maxey out of the playoff rotation at this point. I get it, he has been coming on strong against a run of bad and injured teams, and playing a rookie in the playoffs is always a dicey proposition. And he wasn't even especially good attacking the basket against Orlando on Friday. But he is the guy who has been waking them from their stupor on a lot of nights recently, and his on-ball dynamism could be an important ingredient during the playoff run, even if it's only in the early rounds.

There's just no substitution for the tempo Maxey provides when he steps onto the floor. It's different even from Ben Simmons, mostly because his pace is used in the halfcourt a lot more than it is in transition. Maxey takes a handoff or begins a pick-and-roll and wastes no time turning the corner and exploding toward the rim.

Defensively, he seemed to take the matchup with Cole Anthony personally, no surprise after his peer went higher than him on draft night 2020. Maxey has done a better job of fighting to get over screens lately, a development that will be critical for him to stay on the floor in the playoffs.

• Furkan Korkmaz is an underrated part of what makes the Sixers go, if only because he brings something to the table no one else does: movement shooting. Having to track him around screens and close hard wherever he is on the floor is not as easy as it seems, and even if Korkmaz doesn't come through for them in the playoffs, he will put some milage on the legs of whoever is forced to chase him around.

• Mike Scott has taken a lot of deserved heat this season, and he still saw some lobs to Mo Bamba fly over his head on Friday night, but this was one of his better games of the year on both ends of the floor. Against all odds, he was a semi-credible rim protector against Orlando, blocking multiple shots and showing better understanding of positioning than we've seen all year.

That, and the shots started dropping. He shouldn't ever get minutes as a four on this team, and you could argue he shouldn't get them at all. But without a true stretch five that Rivers trusts, he'll do for the time being.

• Did the Sixers get to the No. 1 seed in as convincing a fashion as fans and analysts were hoping for? Of course not. Are there major questions about their viability as a contender thanks to a grueling schedule that limited their exposure to high-level teams and players? Yes. But at the end of the day, the Sixers accomplished their first significant team goal. They are the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and they have given themselves the best possible chance to win the East as a result.

Avoiding Brooklyn and/or Milwaukee for at least the first two rounds is a major deal. Miami may have put some fear in the Sixers with the bullying they handed out Thursday, but if the Heat are the toughest draw they can get in the first two rounds, it's much better than the alternative. The Bucks/Nets series we assume we'll get in round two should be a drawn-out affair between two high-level teams, and if the Sixers can simply take care of their business, they will head into the Conference Finals with a little less wear and tear, ready to face whoever is next.

Getting here despite some bumps in the road along the way is a testament to a lot of people. The MVP campaign from Joel Embiid stands out above it all, but he was aided by better roster construction, a needed change to the coaching staff, a massive front office hire, and a clear hierarchy that has allowed character vets to influence the locker room while still leaving the heavy lifters the space to own this team. Few people would have put them in the convo for No. 1 before the season, and I think it's important to celebrate what they accomplished up to this point.

Now, the fun part begins, at least after they get Sunday's finale out of the way. They get to wear the target on their back as the frontrunners, and it's a challenge they can and should embrace. 

The Bad

• Joel Embiid imposed his will physically almost immediately in this game, but he faded pretty quickly and didn't appear to be all that interested in trying during this one. Maybe that should have been expected, given the circumstances, but it's a shame to see him sort of whimpering toward the finish line in the best season he has ever had.

If it gets him to the playoffs healthy, nobody is going to care. And in fairness, the big guy did get hit in the d*ck pretty hard in the first half on Friday. I can't blame anyone who tunes out of a game after that.

• Am I the only one a little worried that George Hill still looks mostly unsettled in this lineup? I get that the rotation has been messy because of injuries, that he's coming off of an injury and a long layoff, and that the team hasn't been at their best. But as much as I have loved "the little things" he has added to the team, you'd still hope by now that he could be a more noticeably impactful player.

They'll have plenty of practice time next week, so that should give him time to get fully on board with this group. If not, well, there are no other reinforcements coming.

The Ugly

• You really can't make this stuff up — the Sixers had a shot clock malfunction coming out of halftime, for reasons someone will have to explain to me at a later date. Rather than working to resolve the issue before they started the game again, public address announcer Matt Cord was forced to count down the shot clock manually, yelling out numbers at 15, 10, and then from five on down to one (though that was rarely necessary).

This is not a reflection of my feelings about Matt Cord's work, because a Sixers game wouldn't feel like a Sixers game without him, but it's hard to imagine a more annoying way to deal with a clock malfunction. The speakers are already cranked up to deafening levels in South Philly (even and especially compared to other places around the league), and adding a man shouting multiple times during the 24 clock on every possession was a bit too much for my liking. And I have a high tolerance for loud noises! 

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