By John Denton Feb. 24, 2018
PHILADELPHIA – Seven-foot, 260-pound center Joel Embiid had the ball on the left wing and even though the budding all-star is a man of many talents, not even the Orlando Magic could have imagined what was about to happen.
Unbeknownst to even Embiid at the time, Philadelphia guard J.J. Redick raced up from the baseline and, ahem, nudged Magic guard D.J. Augustin into Magic center Nikola Vucevic, creating a collision that nearly felled both Orlando players. From there, Embiid drove in unmolested for a thunderous dunk that proved to be two of his easiest points of the game.
It was that sort of infuriating and excruciating night for the Magic, who saw an encouraging start quickly devolve into more frustration. Riding the dominant play of Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons, Philadelphia used a 50-18 burst in the first half to blow out to a big lead and cruise past Orlando 116-105 at Wells Fargo Center.
``Instead of us waiting for the opposing team to hit us, we should hit first,’’ said guard Evan Fournier, who wasn’t talking about the specific collision between the two Magic players, but more as a general rule. ``We have to have a hit-first mentality and be the attackers. Sometimes, and especially tonight, we wait to get hit and then in a quarter, five minutes or whatever (comes the response). Tonight, the response was too late.’’
The Magic (18-41) had little-to-no answers all night for size of Embiid and the speed of point guard Ben Simmons. Philadelphia (32-25) rode Embiid (28 points and 14 rebounds) on the inside and got another all-around stat-stuffing performance from Simmons (17 points, seven assists and four rebounds).
``Our energy dropped, and with this team, we can’t lack energy because if we do we’re digging ourselves our own graves,’’ said Magic forward Aaron Gordon, who had a strong second half to finish with 20 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and four 3-pointers. ``Every night we’ve either got to match energy or come out with more energy for 48 minutes if we’re going to get a win. That’s pretty much the only way we’re going to win at this point.’’
The Sixers shot 51.9 percent from the floor, hit nine threes and 23 free throws placed all five starters in double figures in scoring. Orlando shot just 44.6 percent and had 13 threes and 16 free throws.
``We came out and competed and their second unit came in and pressured us and took us out of a lot of things offensively,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel said. ``That helped them get in rhythm against our defense. So, credit them for that stretch.’’
What Vogel did find encouraging was the Magic racking up 27 assists, prompting him to say: ``Our whole team is trying to play the right way. So, we’re trying to play good-to-great offense and build a culture of extra-pass basketball. That part of it looked good tonight.’’
The 76ers have continued to ride the torrid wave of emotion in Philadelphia most of this month, going 7-0 since the Eagles won the Super Bowl on Feb. 4. Coincidentally, the Philadelphia Flyers of the NHL improved to 8-2 since the Super Bowl with both of their losses coming on shootouts.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was on hand on Saturday, serving as the honorary ringer of the Sixers’ faux Liberty Bell prior to tipoff.
Saturday’s game was the second for Gordon and Vucevic since returning from long layoffs because of injuries. Vucevic, who has a long history of playing well against the Sixers, was one of the long bright spots early on and finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots. Gordon, who is still rounding into shape after missing three weeks with a hip strain, finished with a flurry to give the Magic some hope going forward. Gordon had 15 points, five assists and three 3-pointers in the second half alone.
``I mean, it doesn’t really matter because we lost,’’ a dejected Gordon said. ``If the rhythm that I find isn’t helping my team win, then it doesn’t really matter. I’ll slowly, but surely work my way back to where it’s affecting the (team) and the outcome of wins.’’
Fournier scored 16 points despite making just five of 12 shots, while Mario Hezonja scored 13 points off the bench.
The Magic made things interesting late in the game, getting to within nine points twice on two Hezonja free throws and a dunk by Gordon. Hezonja had a 27-foot 3-pointer circle the rim and fall out with 1:20 to play that could have cut the deficit to six.
Combined with Thursday’s disappointing defeat to the New York Knicks, Orlando lost for a second straight time since the break for the NBA All-Star Game. Overall, it’s the Magic fifth straight loss – a skid that was predated by a three-game winning streak over Miami, Cleveland and Atlanta from Feb. 5-8.
The Magic will be off on Sunday before facing the star-studded Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday. Orlando whipped the Thunder at the Amway Center in late November for one of its best victories of the season.
Redick, one of the Magic’s leaders on their teams that reached the NBA Finals in 2009 and the East Finals in 2010, scored 16 points. Marco Belinelli chipped in 15 off the Philadelphia bench.
Down 18 points at the half, Orlando showed some life in the third period behind some dazzling play from Gordon. He sandwiched a dunk around two 3-pointers to draw the Magic within 13 points of the Sixers.
``That was an important stretch for him to kind of get his rhythm back,’’ Vogel said of Gordon. ``Vooch and Aaron, over the next two or three weeks, they’re going to be battling rhythm and timing issues as they get their legs under them. But that was a really good stretch for Aaron.’’
However, the run wouldn’t last nearly long enough, and Philadelphia eventually regained control behind Embiid. He had 28 points and 13 rebounds through three periods, allowing the Sixers to take an 87-71 advantage into the fourth quarter.
Said Fournier: ``I mean Embiid is a terrific player. What he is becoming is really good because he’s a complete player who can do so many things offensively and defensively and it’s just hard to attack him. And the Sixers just play really good basketball. They are well-coached and they all have specific roles and they stick to it. They’re just getting better and better.’’
Orlando seemed to have a glimmer of hope early in the night by racing out to a 15-6 lead. However, that lead didn’t stand for long as Philly ripped off a 50-18 run that helped it hold a commanding 58-40 lead at intermission.
Embiid and Simmons did quite the one-two number on the Magic in the early going. The Magic couldn’t double-team Embiid because of the shooters around him and he demolished them to the tune of 19 points and eight rebounds in the first half. Orlando tried Vucevic, Bismack Biyombo and Khem Birch on the big man with little luck at all. In fact, Biyombo picked up three fouls in just 3 minutes, 22 seconds and the Magic were outscored by 10 points during that stretch.
Simmons, who missed all of last season and the first meeting between the two teams, showed off his elite size, speed and vision in the first half. He had the first two baskets after Philadelphia had fallen in an early nine-point hole and he had compiled 10 points, six assists and three rebounds by intermission.
Embiid and Simmons raised their levels of play after the slow start, overwhelming the Magic and lifting the Sixers to a seventh straight victory.
``They got down, so they played a more aggressive brand of basketball during that stretch of the first half,’’ Vogel said. ``We got good looks and we didn’t knock them down, so we didn’t ever stop the bleeding.
``(Embiid) is one of the best players in the league,’’ Vogel added. ``He carries that threat, so he’s tough to guard.’’
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