Orlando Magic at Philadelphia 76ers: Game Preview

R.J. Hampton
by Dan Savage

ORLANDO -- The Orlando Magic close out their 2020-21 regular season campaign with two straight contests in Philadelphia.

The Magic (21-49) will attempt to snap a five-game losing skid when they take on the 76ers (47-23), who are looking to lock up the one seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race, on Friday at 8 p.m. ET.

Orlando is hoping to end its season on a high note. It’s certainly been a challenging one for the Magic as they’ve dealt with a number of significant injuries and roster changes amidst a season with a truncated schedule and limited practice time. In addition, Orlando’s squad is extremely young and inexperienced, which makes dealing with those obstacles all the more difficult.

“We have a group, with the exception of Gary Harris, that are just learning how difficult it is to get yourself in position to have the right level of intensity and concentration every night,” Magic Head Coach Steve Clifford explained. “We went from not very good against Minnesota to really very good against Milwaukee … to (against Atlanta) again in terms of execution areas that you have to be able to do – controlling cutters, controlling the ball, close-out game, ball movement, purpose of play on offense – it wasn’t close. That may be the biggest lesson.”

For the final two games of the season, the goal remains the same. The Magic want to see improvement in those areas and build some momentum heading into the offseason.

“Philadelphia is an elite team,” Clifford said. “They’re obviously a challenging opponent and it’ll be a good test for us.”

These contests will also continue to give young players like R.J. Hampton a chance to refine their game and identify areas that they’d like to further develop heading into the offseason. The explosive combo guard continues to make the most of his increased opportunity as he puts together a sensational month of basketball.

Over the last seven contests, the amount of games Orlando has played in May, Hampton is averaging team highs in points (16.6) and assists (5.1), while also pulling down 6.6 rebounds per game and shooting 50 percent from 3-point range.

“He’s a very talented player,” said Harris, who came to Orlando with Hampton as part of a trade deadline deal with Denver. “Especially this seven-game stretch, I think we’re seeing the true R.J. Hampton. He’s just now scratching the surface, I feel like. (He’s) finishing the season strong, and it’s going to be a big summer for him.”

QUOTE TO NOTE: “My optimism is through the roof. We have a very talented team. We have some talented guys on this team, they’re just figuring it out. Everybody is figuring it out one game at a time. I remember my time as a young guy in this league, you got to figure it out, and they will. We’ve got some injuries too. I’m looking forward to that summer, getting everybody together, getting healthy – first, and foremost – and then, coming together, working together as a team to try (and be) in the playoffs next year.” – Harris on his outlook for the Magic

INJURY UPDATE: For Orlando, Mo Bamba (illness; non-COVID) is questionable, while Michael Carter-Williams (sprained left ankle), James Ennis III (sore right calf), Markelle Fultz (torn ACL, left knee), Jonathan Isaac (left knee rehabilitation), Chuma Okeke (sprained left ankle), Otto Porter Jr. (left foot pain), and Terrence Ross (back spasms) are out.

For Philadelphia, Matisse Thybulle (left hand swelling) missed their game against the Heat on Thursday.

KEY STAT: The Magic will see a familiar face in a new place on Friday. The Sixers announced that they signed Gary Clark to a two-way contract on Tuesday.

Clark spent time with Orlando and Denver earlier this season, appearing in 37 total games, while averaging 3.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in 17.3 minutes per contest. He posted a season-high 14 points on Jan. 24 with the Magic against the Charlotte Hornets, connecting on a career-high-tying four of his seven three-point attempts and adding four rebounds and two assists in 35 minutes.

RIVALS REPORT: For the final edition of our Rivals Report series, I brought in special guest, Brian Seltzer, writer and podcaster for the 76ers. He’s been covering the Sixers for the past six seasons and provides in-depth insight about the team. He was generous enough to take the time on Friday and answer a few questions about the 76ers.

Savage: “The Sixers currently sit atop the Eastern Conference. What would it mean to the team and to the organization to clinch the one seed in the East?”

Seltzer: “I think they would say that the number one seed is significant, but not something that they would celebrate. Going back to the beginning of this season there was talk about the desire to be the top team coming out of the East, and they’ve put themselves in position to do that. Obviously, the last two games haven’t gone their way. They didn’t have Joel (Embiid) for the game in Indy on Tuesday and then, Thursday night against the Heat, they ran into a really focused and purposeful Miami team and couldn’t catch up as the game went on. I think that this is something that the Sixers want. Should they be able to get it with their magic number being one, I don’t think you’re going to hear a lot of celebratory talk. You certainly won’t see a lot of celebration. This whole team has been very business-like throughout this season. They set the bar high for themselves. They’ve pretty much checked off every marker along the way. I think this is the last missing piece to it and I do think that they want it. Do I think that they would panic or lose hope if for some reason they weren’t able to get one more win or have a Brooklyn loss before the end of the season? No. But I do think it’s something that in a perfect world they would like to be able to have."

Savage: “It’s obviously been a crazy season for a lot of teams, but what was your biggest takeaway from the Sixers in the regular season this year?”

Seltzer: “There are so many things, Dan, that you can point to whether it’s Joel Embiid having an MVP season, taking his game all around to a new level. Tobias Harris emerging as a true bonafide closer option. Late in games, he’s come up big so many times down the stretch for the Sixers this season. Ben Simmons playing like a Defensive Player of the Year and just ratcheting it up a notch on the defensive end of the floor. But for me, I think the overarching theme that left the biggest impression on me are two things that happened before the season even started. That was the acquisition of Seth Curry and Danny Green. The two of those guys just make this starting lineup fit. There is a balance to the force of things. There’s a floor that now has space because you have two of the best shooters in the league in Seth and Danny in the lineup. I think that last season, there were a lot of great individual pieces and really good guys on this team. But this year, it fits. It’s something that Joel Embiid believes isn’t discussed enough, and I agree. The starting lineup just has great balance. It’s got a net rating of over thirteen-and-a-half, which is best among starting lineups that have played at least five-hundred minutes together this season. I think it’s just a roster that works among the starting group. And then, the bench is really, really solid. Dwight Howard has been arguably the best backup Joel Embiid has had since he’s been with the 76ers. We’ve seen the continued progress of guys like Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle, who’s so awesome defensively. Furkan Korkmaz, a dependable shooter. Tyrese Maxey, a bouncy guard, who is a rookie, but someone who’ve they’ve gone a little bit more to down the stretch. But I think first and foremost, my biggest takeaway is that with the starting group there is balance that’s created space on the floor for mainly Joel and then also, Ben Simmons to operate in.”

Savage: “This season for the Sixers will be judged as much as anything by their success in the postseason. What are your keys for this group for a deep playoff run?”

Seltzer: “Health, first and foremost. I bet any team in the league would probably say that. Whether that’s short term or long term, just being able to keep your main guys on the floor. The Sixers have been focused on their transition defense as the season has gone along. That’s something they want to make sure is tightened up. And listen, they’re going to need Joel Embiid to be the absolute, very best version of himself. He’s been amazing so far this year. Again, just his defensive presence, the ground he can cover defensively, how he’s added to his offensive game, how dangerous his ability to shoot his jump shot is, and how that opens up other things for him. He now attacks more off the dribble. I think he’s found ways in the regular season to combat double-teams that he so frequently gets. Passing out of the post has been huge for him. But if Joel is the very best version of himself, I think that the Sixers have a great shot. Again, I think that’s seeing things like passing out of the post and attacking off the dribble, things like that, that can counter doubles in the regular season and has to translate now in the playoffs.”

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