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January 05, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers dispose of Magic for fifth straight win

Joel Embiid, who led all scorers with 31 points, was one of four Philly players to score at least 20 in the game

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Joel Embiid had 30+ points yet again, and the Sixers keep on winning by following their big man, with Philadelphia scoring a 116-106 victory over the Magic on Wednesday night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The Sixers did not exactly struggle to score against Orlando on Wednesday night, thanks to returns to form for a couple of their starters and the continued dominance of Joel Embiid. At this point, you know you're getting a lot from the big guy each and every night, and all it takes is one or two guys stepping up to push the Sixers' offense to respectability.

Seth Curry was the big standout early on, both because he made his shots and because Curry was not shy about pulling the trigger from all over the floor. There was no hesitation from Curry beyond the arc, with No. 31 firing away from deep range early in the clock, a welcome sight on a team filled with surprisingly reluctant marksmen. 

When Curry gets going, everything tends to open up for the Sixers, and we saw some interesting two-man action between Embiid and Curry that differs from their usual repertoire. Curry nearly hit Embiid for an alley-oop slam on a lob in the second quarter, but the free throws earned on the play were good enough, and a good example of what might happen if Embiid commits to rolling more often.

With nobody else to turn to, Curry the playmaker was needed in a big way against Orlando, and their usual shooting guard delivered, making an impressive variety of passes to set up teammates. There were sweeping lobs, hook passes in traffic, good bounce passes, and an overall competent display from a guy who shouldn't be asked to do as much as he did. Curry leading from the front is part of what allowed the Sixers to keep Embiid on the bench longer to open the fourth.

• Curry aside, the star of the show was still Embiid, who is in absolutely insane form at the moment. Each and every night, it feels like we get something new out of the big guy, with skills developing that we either never saw before or hadn't seen as regularly as we are this year. Perhaps the secondary skills have always been lurking beneath the surface and his improved fitness over the last two seasons has just helped him put it all together, but he has embraced being the hub of the offense in a much different way this season, still dominating as a scorer while serving as a playmaker and connector on offense.

Furkan Korkmaz mentioned this following Monday night's win over Houston, but it feels like Embiid is seeing and reading the game at a different level now. He's making interior passes in traffic, bounce passes to Tobias Harris in the post, and cross-court passes out of doubles that start the chain reaction of rotations to unsettle any defense. Make no mistake, the Sixers still need perimeter playmaking to get to the next level, and Embiid's turnover number indicates that as well as anything else could, but he's looking to make plays in spots where he never used to even look for teammates. 

The rest of his game is still great, naturally, and Embiid's aggression in early offense is putting teams in really difficult spots before they can get started. Against Orlando, Embiid continued his trend of getting down the floor quickly to seal off his man and get to work on the block, putting poor Wendell Carter Jr. in foul trouble by sparring with him on roughly every other possession. And his footwork belies Embiid's background playing soccer back home in Cameroon, with this giant man dipping and diving through traffic to get past guys smaller and lighter than him.

Let's throw in a highlight here of him ending a defensive possession and slithering through traffic for a layup in transition, just for fun:

If Embiid manages to keep this up, and if the Sixers can continue stringing together wins, he may very well find himself in the MVP conversation again. The team's record is the primary thing holding him back right now, but he's playing as well as anybody in the NBA at the moment, and Philadelphia has a decent chance to climb higher in the standings by the time January is over.

• Andre Drummond moved at what felt like warp speed in Wednesday night's game vs. the Magic. He was asked to do things he normally wouldn't have to think about, including making perimeter rotations and closing hard on perimeter shooters rather than bigs executing a pick-and-pop. His energy gave the Sixers a noticeable lift whenever he was on the floor, and while you're playing with fire allowing him to initiate his own offense, the Sixers needed someone to step up with the lack of guards they had available on Wednesday night.

Philadelphia's backup center managed to impact this game all across the box score, the yin to Danny Green's yang on Wednesday. There were tough offensive rebounds in traffic, steals with quick hands away from the ball, and frequent fouls drawn by running the floor, sealing a smaller Magic defender on his hip before the cameras could even get him on screen.

• You should certainly celebrate that Tobias Harris looked a bit closer to his "normal" and productive self on Wednesday night, regardless of where you fall on the masturbatory booing debate that has taken place over the last couple of days. This game was mostly a good example of the approach Harris has to play with, live with, and approach his relationship to the game with — who cares, just let it fly.

When Harris had moments of hesitation, he and the offense looked their worst on Wednesday. The Sixers inexplicably managed to create a wide-open three with an ultra-big lineup we will get to below, and Harris stared it down long enough to vaporize the chance, driving into traffic and turning the ball over instead. There was an even bigger mistake later in the game, with the Sixers running an ATO play that generated an open three for Harris, only for Harris to dribble out of it and eventually settle for a long, contested two that he bricked.

It's a bit mystifying because Harris frequently took (and made) catch-and-shoot threes to go with some nice touch shots on the move toward the basket. As assistant coach Dan Burke was quick to point out earlier in the week, the locker room and coaching staff has a lot of belief in Harris, and that should empower him regardless of what everyone else might think of his game. Playing decisively is not going to guarantee makes, but it leads to better quality shots for Harris, and that will lead to more success.

While his defensive effort has not always or often been there during this slump, Harris made a couple of excellent blocks on Magic drivers on Wednesday, even earning a tie-up for a jump ball with one of them. Harris has made repeated attempts to make up for his missing touch elsewhere, primarily by playmaking for teammates, and his persistence is appreciated, even if it can give him tunnel vision from time to time.  

• We are normally a process over results sort of gang around these parts, so I would typically roast the everloving hell out of Doc Rivers for playing the ultra-big lineup they had on the floor at the end of the third quarter. But when a lineup that has Embiid-Drummond as the starting point actually succeeds in an NBA game, you have to laugh and applaud the audacity at the very least.

For a brief moment in time, we got to witness a lineup that historians will try to write out of the books — Embiid-Drummond-Niang-Harris-Korkmaz shared the floor for a spell before Embiid finally subbed out of the game, and the only way it could have been more absurd is if Ben Simmons came down out of the rafters in a Sixers jersey to join his team midgame. What a circus.

(Rivers was not exactly overflowing with options for this one. Isaiah Joe was ruled out for the rest of the game at halftime, leaving the coach with a choice of adding one of Braxton Key, Aaron Henry, Charles Bassey, or Charlie Brown Jr. to the rotation. If you're the sort of person that wants to point out that at least one of those guys should have gotten a chance if the team believes they are roster-able players, I am not going to argue with you.)

• Not his best night shooting the basketball, but a quick moment of appreciation for Furkan Korkmaz, who has shown off the versatility when they've badly needed it the last two nights.

The Bad

• There was not a lot of defense played early in this one, which is no surprise when you look at Philadelphia's lineup for the night. How many good athletes did they have active for this game, and how many of them were centers who could not play at the same time? Even with the Magic playing big for a lot of the night, the Sixers were at a disadvantage and frequently got blown by on the perimeter.

Unfortunately, that problem was compounded by Joel Embiid, who usually plays the role of savior on the back end. But after he picked up an early foul lunging toward Wendell Carter Jr., Embiid's interest in exposing himself to foul trouble took a nosedive, and Magic players had a fairly easy time getting to the basket and scoring as a result.

Given how essential he is and was to Philadelphia's offensive success, it's hard to blame Embiid for trying to make sure he could stay on the floor as long as possible. Unfortunately, Embiid also undermined that effort by committing an offensive foul to pick up his second before the first quarter was over, so the end result was just bad defense and the predicament he wanted to avoid. Tough break.

(When it was time for Embiid to turn it on defensively to close this one out, the big guy was up to the task. I suppose that's what matters.)

• We harp on it all of the time, but it doesn't make it any less infuriating when the Sixers get absolutely smoked on the glass. The Magic have the look of a team that should be a good offensive rebounding club with a very big frontcourt, so you might have expected this coming in, but Orlando actually ranks pretty low in the offensive rebounding category league-wide. So you have to point the finger at the Sixers for not living up to their end of the bargain and killing off possessions when they had the chance.

At this point, you have to imagine this is at the top of every opponent's scouting report for Philadelphia (right next to a picture of Embiid's face), with teams smelling blood in the water even when they're missing shots and in a bad run of shooting form. There are just so many problems with how the Sixers approach rebounding, from roster construction to poor fundamentals to other teams outworking and outrunning them, getting to spots the Sixers could have stopped them from getting to in the first place.

They can't get past the lack of size and athleticism, and even with maximum attention to detail and effort, this would be a problem. But they have to help themselves and make the easy-ish plays, because it's clear at this point they're going to lose most, if not all of the contested opportunities.

• Danny Green's first 17 minutes of this game were played without recording a single stat. No points, no rebounds, no assists, not even a personal foul or a turnover for his troubles, just a whole lot of cardio and nothing to show for it. That's pretty hard to do, especially for Green, who if nothing else will take a corner three when the ball swings his way on a possession.

On Wednesday night, it took Green fouling somebody midway through the third quarter for the scorekeeper to 

• I'll have to rewatch these plays later, but there were two different plays where I thought Seth Curry had Magic turnovers all but gift-wrapped for him, only for the opportunities to go up in smoke because he couldn't catch the ball. Might be an uncharitable angle based on the quick first watch, but I scratched my head at the flub when Cole Anthony lobbed him a pass in the first quarter. 

• Lack of guards aside, Embiid needed to take better care of the basketball. He has been much better doing so this season, and the last two games have been bad on that front. And though I can excuse some dip in rebounding when he's flying around protecting the rim, he can't be as absent on the glass as he was in this one. 

The Ugly

• I never thought I'd see a guy get a flagrant foul for ball-tapping somebody in the middle of a jumper, so congratulations to Myles Powell for making that happen. 

Dumb play, but admittedly hilarious as a male who lived through middle school. Protect the jewels.

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