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November 29, 2021

Instant observations: Seth Curry carries Sixers through vs. Magic despite poor team effort

The Sixers only seemed half-interested in their Monday night meeting with the Orlando Magic, but a lights-out night from Seth Curry was enough to heal all wounds, as the Sixers eventually sputtered to a 101-96 victory.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• For the first time in a while, the Sixers had their normal starting lineup (sans Ben Simmons) and their full bench available, a rarity during the early stages of this season. And for the first two quarters, the Sixers looked the way they were supposed to against a bad Magic team, surging to an early lead without much effort exerted.

Philadelphia's first-half success was predicated on the two-man combination of Seth Curry and Tobias Harris, who all but carried the offense as other guys struggled to find their grooves.

Curry was inch-perfect for almost the entire first half, destroying the Magic from midrange while working the two-man game with Embiid. The chemistry between those two continues to grow as they play more games together, with Curry flowing out of screens and away from the big guy as if he is an extension of Embiid's brain, cutting and shifting and twisting to end up in the perfect spot to attack. And when he has the ball in his hands with Embiid as a screen setter, he could hardly ask for a bigger and better partner in pick-and-rolls, with Curry turning the corner easily to bury wide-open shots from midrange.

Harris gets to his buckets in a much different way, often flying solo and powering through contact to score. The vet forward exploited a variety of matchups on Monday night. Staring down the taller Mo Bamba to start the game, Harris used his pump fake to get Bamba off of his feet and create a lane to the basket, nullifying the length advantage with speed. When he had Chuma Okeke on him instead, Harris used the difference in strength between a grown man and a developing player, shrugging off Okeke on his way to the hoop.

Only one of those guys stayed in a groove after halftime, and unfortunately for the Sixers, it was the guy who was less involved in the offense on an average play (Mr. Curry). And it really is an extraordinary experience watching Curry play — even when he has gone through cold stretches this year, I can't remember a time where I saw him rise up for a jumper and didn't think the shot was going in.

They needed every last jumper and runner off the glass Curry was able to deposit against the Magic, sad as that reality is. It pays to have high-level offensive talent on your team, even with the warts Curry has on the other end. And that was the story of this game — Curry bailed the Sixers out of a ton of bad possessions and masked what was otherwise a pretty listless performance for the home team. 

• The Sixers were fortunate to get the good version of Andre Drummond in the second half against Orlando as most of the team drifted through a game they clearly thought they had in the bag. If not for Drummond absolutely pounding the Magic bigs on the offensive glass late in the third and early in the fourth quarter, you might have been looking at a different outcome.

Locked in a fight with Mo Bamba, who is a bit light to be battling with Drummond for positioning around the rim, Drummond absolutely manhandled the Magic, though what would happen after he controlled the rebound was anyone's guess. Sometimes there would be a putback layup, other times Drummond would fire a pass at somebody's feet on the perimeter, tossing the new opportunity out of bounds.

Honestly, considering the circumstances, they weren't really in a position to complain about what he did with second chances. At the very least, Drummond was leaving an imprint on the game, though we're really in a bizarro world when Drummond is the guy who is inspiring the rest of the group in the effort department. That's sort of his whole problem and a big reason he can't be an essential piece on a good team, so good on him for leading by example when they needed it. 

• Seeing Danny Green score on a putback dunk is rare enough that I think we should celebrate the moment even if it was only two points in the grand scheme of things. Green threw down a few hellacious slams back in the day, including an absolute poster on Greg Paulus in a UNC-Duke game many moons ago, but coming off of a hamstring problem at his age, this one was almost more impressive.

The Bad

• This was not the best night at the office for Joel Embiid, and a lot of it was his own doing. After a Saturday night showcase of his foul-drawing ability, Embiid tried to go back to that well against Orlando in the follow-up game. But he skewed too far toward selling to the refs, and that led to a lot of wasted possessions, with Embiid clanging shots off the backboard or the rim when the whistle never came.

These nights and moments are going to happen for Embiid, who is generally pretty smart about picking his spots and exploiting the rules to his advantage. But when the whistle doesn't go his way, the big guy does have to adjust his approach, and it took a little too long for him to figure it out.

Even once he did, Embiid's focus drifted at times in this game, and the rim protection he tends to offer even when he's having a bad offensive night wasn't there against Orlando until late in the game. Give Franz Wagner some credit for wrong-footing him on a few occasions, but Embiid was less in control of the paint than usual, mistiming a few leaps and failing to put the fear of god in Magic players.

A dialed-in effort from this group would (and should) have been enough to bury Orlando early, and the person who is expected to be the catalyst for that sort of thumping is the big guy. With Embiid picking and choosing when he wanted to care about this game, a lot of his teammates seemed to follow suit, and that's how they ended up in a four-quarter dogfight with one of the worst teams in the league. For all of his gifts as a player and person, Embiid has a terrible poker face, and the lack of concentration and "give a shit" was written all over him on Monday night.

On several levels, I actually understand not being totally locked in for a Monday night game against Orlando in late November, especially after a long, grueling battle with the Timberwolves two nights prior. You have to "load manage" certain games to get through a long season, even games where you're actually on the floor. But if you're going to mail it in, you do eventually have to at least make some shots. To heap praise on him for his improvements as a leader and centerpiece, you have to acknowledge when he falls short of his duties, and this was a bogus effort even with the context of a long recent layoff and the heavy minutes on Saturday.

• The Orlando Magic succeeded while playing zone defense against the Sixers, but they did not play good zone defense against the Sixers, and there is absolutely a difference between those two things. The age-old problem of shot hesitation came back to bite the Sixers yet again, with Philly's perimeter players often psyching themselves out of good looks and allowing the opponent to reset and rotate so they could pester a little longer.

Danny Green and Seth Curry were the only guys who really seemed to get the memo — if you get an open three against a zone, it's time to let it fly. No reason to overcomplicate it, stall, or think you're going to get a better shot just because you passed it three more times. Smoke 'em if you got 'em, so to speak.

• Tyrese Maxey's confidence as a shooter has grown by leaps and bounds over the last month, to the point that he's regularly taking and making threes out of dribble handoffs when defenses go under the screen. While he doesn't just launch freely the way you might like him to at this point, his volume has basically doubled since last season, and his efficiency is way up, which is all the more impressive when you consider the types of shots he's putting up.

That said, the results have not been there in recent games, with Maxey's scoring efficiency taking regressing toward the mean after a lights-out stretch as the alpha dog for the Sixers. Some of those problems are contextual — he was the man who ended up with the hot potato on some bad team possessions — and some of them are Maxey struggling to play consistent high-level basketball the way any second-year guard might, particularly one who is learning how to play point guard on the fly.

He is no longer a player they can simply sit on the bench when he's having a tough one, with Maxey expected to be the guy who runs the team, steers them through troubled waters, and scores whenever the moment calls for it. I suspect he'll get back on track, but it wasn't a good night for him.

• How long does Furkan Korkmaz's cold streak need to last before Doc Rivers decides to go to somebody else in the rotation? Korkmaz is not even coming close to making some of his attempts right now, and that's a shame, because it feels like his average shot quality is higher than a lot of guys in the rotation. When he's in the mood, Korkmaz would turn those looks into a barrage of makes, but he hasn't been there for a while now.

Isaiah Joe has been up-and-down in limited minutes this season, but you can't tell me he doesn't deserve a chance to see what he can offer as the Korkmaz replacement for the second unit. Give him some opportunities that aren't in games where several rotation guys are out injured and see what he can do.

• Matisse Thybulle has to swing from devastating opponents to devastating his own team faster than any player in the league. One moment, he's coming up with an absolutely insane block on a jumper that maybe five guys in the league would have been able to get to without fouling. On the very same play, he will somehow manage to pick up a foul reaching for a ball he has absolutely no chance to come up with, or follow up a forced turnover by giving the ball away himself with a terrible pass after possession changes hands.

There's just no telling what he's going to do on any given possession, and the only question is which team that is going to help at the time. He skewed toward negative to my eye, so here's hoping he finds himself on the right side of the spectrum soon enough. 

(Having him on the floor when the Magic went back to zone late in the game was borderline comical. Doc Rivers did well to get him out of the game almost immediately when they made the switch, but he probably could have kept him on the bench in the first place.)

The Ugly

• The Sixers' end-of-quarter play to close out the first was one of the dumbest and funniest plays I think they've run all year. Doc Rivers brought in Tyrese Maxey specifically to bring the ball up with just seven seconds to play, and looked pretty upset when the ball ended up going to Shake Milton instead. From there, Milton proceeded to dribble down the floor, attempt a lob pass to Matisse Thybulle that came off the glass and back into Milton's hands. He managed to collect himself before passing to Thybulle successfully, and Thybulle made a high-arcing shot on the baseline to get the job done. 

Can't imagine that's how they drew it up, but whatever works, I guess. A bucket is a bucket.

• Mo Bamba had some absolutely outrageous blocks on Monday night. Word on the street is that he has turned a corner early this season, and I certainly believe it after watching him stink it up in previous meetings against the Sixers. Anybody that big with even semi-functional skills is going to have a long runway to develop, and I'm curious to see if he can turn himself into something long-term.

And Franz Wagner is just straight-up good, no caveats or qualifiers necessary. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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