3 Observations: Sixers Avenge Earlier Loss to Magic Behind Strong Nights from Embiid, Harden

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers split their two-game miniseries with the Orlando Magic, defeating them 105-94 on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center.

Joel Embiid, once again coming into the game questionable with left foot soreness, dominated for the Sixers. He finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and a block. James Harden came one rebound away from what would have been his fifth triple-double of the season. He totaled 26 points on 6-of-10 shooting from 3-point range to go with nine rebounds, 10 assists and a steal. The lone blemish was his seven turnovers.

The Magic were led in their losing effort by 18 points from former Sixer Markelle Fultz. Paolo Banchero added in 13 points, nine rebounds and three assists.

The Sixers now sit at 33-17 on the season. Their next matchup is on the road against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night. Here are three observations from the win:

Sixers power way through uneven start

The Sixers got off to a red hot start in their previous matchup against the Magic on Monday. While the result proved to be the same in this game, it took a windy road to get there.

The game was evened up at six through the first 3:13 of action. Both teams failed to take advantage of a plethora of open looks. The floodgates opened up, beginning with a De’Anthony Melton 3-pointer to give the Sixers a 9-6 lead. Gary Harris made the Sixers pay for some poor perimeter defense, draining 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions. After the scoring flurry, the game remained tied at 16 when the Sixers called a timeout with 6:01 to play in the opening quarter.

The Sixers started to pull away from Orlando in the final few minutes of the first quarter. They went on a 17-0 run over the final 3:50 of the quarter. Defensively, they were content to let Orlando jack up shots from beyond the arc. The Sixers turned it up a notch offensively through some crisp ball movement and their ability to get to the free-throw line. They went 12-of-12 from the charity stripe in the first quarter.

A lot of the Sixers offense ran through Embiid’s work in the post. The Magic did a halfway decent job of sending over early double teams in an effort to deny the entry pass to Embiid in the post. However, the Sixers countered with some different, creative ways to get the ball to Embiid. Once they did, the big fella effectively punished the Magic through a combination of finding an open teammate or just using his strength to overpower Orlando’s big men. His improvement over the years at handling double teams was on full display. He beat an Orlando double team with a pass around Bol Bol to a cutting Matisse Thybulle, who then was fouled while attempting a layup. Embiid scored 16 points and grabbed four rebounds in the first quarter of play.

Bench unit struggles as Magic keep it close

Sixers’ head coach Doc Rivers opened up the second quarter with an all-bench lineup. The second unit has fared well for the most part in recent weeks, although the results in this game were subpar.

Montrezl Harrell was first off the bench at backup center for the Sixers. For the second consecutive game, he struggled to make a positive impact on the game. His defense and rebounding were relatively non-existent, and he was subbed out for Paul Reed after just 2:15 of action on the floor. Reed was not much better, grabbing just one rebound while committing a turnover and a foul in three minutes.

Harrell’s minutes in the second half were not that much better. He committed an illegal screen turnover and a foul in his first few possessions in the second half. He made a few positive plays in the ensuing minutes, finishing with two points, four rebounds, a steal and a block in 10 minutes. In what has become a yearly routine, the Sixers should be looking for backup center upgrades before this season’s Feb. 9 trade deadline.

Georges Niang and Tyrese Maxey, both staples of the bench unit, also struggled to find their shot throughout the night. Both players had a ton of open looks that they failed to capitalize on. It made for tough sledding offensively when Embiid and Harden were off the floor. The duo combined to shoot just 5-of-20 from the field and 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. Chalk their poor shooting performances up to some bad luck as both of them are normally good shooters.

After heading into the quarter with a 37-23 lead, the Magic were able to stick around. They began the second quarter on a 12-2 run to make it a 39-35 game, forcing the Sixers to call a timeout with 8:17 left in the quarter. The Sixers did just enough offensively in the second quarter, receiving some timely 3-pointers to stay afloat throughout the quarter. They went into halftime with a 56-53 lead.

The Sixers were unable for much of the night to be able to hold or expand their lead. Through a combination of turnovers and a poor shooting night, the Magic were able to keep the game close throughout the first three quarters. The Sixers committed 19 turnovers overall and were fortunate that the Magic struggled mightily from beyond the arc to the tune of shooting 6-of-39 from deep. Despite that, it was just a four-point game heading into the final quarter.

Sixers lock things down in fourth quarter

Unlike their prior game on Monday against the Magic, the Sixers were able to get the final word on Wednesday. They had an 85-83 lead with 9:56 left in the fourth quarter when they clicked into a higher gear on both ends of the floor. Tobias Harris blocked a Banchero layup attempt and Harrell blocked his putback attempt. Harden drilled a step-back 3-pointer on the other end of the floor. On the following possession, Harris made a layup in transition to widen the Sixers’ lead to seven points with 8:40 remaining.

Harris was big for the Sixers, playing efficiently on both ends of the floor. He stepped up and defended Banchero for much of the second half, holding the rookie to just two second-half points. Offensively, he filled into his role well whether it was spreading the ball around or knocking down a few 3-pointers. He finished with 16 points, five rebounds, five assists and two blocks.

The Sixers continued to expand their lead over the next few minutes. Maxey connected on a wide open 3-pointer. Harrell recorded a steal and then a dunk off a nice feed from Harden. Niang then knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner on the following possession to cap off the Sixers’ 13-2 run. At that point, the lead was up to 13 points with 6:35 remaining.

Orlando responded with a 5-0 run to cut the lead to eight points. However, Harden silenced them with another 3-pointer to lift the lead back up to 11 points. Harden connected on six 3-pointers against the Magic. From there on out, the Magic hung around but were not able to make any indent on the Sixers’ lead. The Sixers locked things up defensively in the final quarter, holding Orlando to just 16 points.

Perhaps the biggest positive sign from their run in the fourth quarter was that it came with Embiid on the bench. Rivers elected to play Embiid for the entirety of the first quarter and nearly all of the third quarter. The flip side of that strategy is having large stretches with Embiid off the floor. After being subbed out with 1:24 left in the third quarter, he did not come back into the game until there was 5:24 left in the fourth. While the results against the Magic were positive, that strategy is not something the Sixers should go to on a consistent basis against higher-caliber teams.