Sixers observations

3 observations after Sixers beat Magic, earn first Embiid-less win of season

The Sixers played strong defense Wednesday night in a 112-92 victory.

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The Sixers earned win No. 21 on Wednesday night without No. 21.

They improved to 21-9 overall this season and 1-4 in games that Joel Embiid has missed by notching a 112-92 victory over the Magic at Kia Center.

Tyrese Maxey scored 23 points. Tobias Harris and De'Anthony Melton added 22 apiece.

Orlando's Franz Wagner posted 24 points. Jalen Suggs had 20 and Paolo Banchero scored 19 for the Magic, who dropped to 18-12.

Embiid (right ankle sprain) and Nicolas Batum (right hamstring strain) remained out. Though Embiid has worked out on court in recent days, the Sixers haven’t set a date for his return. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse told reporters in Orlando that he expects to have Batum back this weekend. The Sixers will visit the Rockets on Friday and the Bulls on Saturday. 

The Magic’s Markelle Fultz, Gary Harris, Joe Ingles and Jonathan Isaac were sidelined.  

Here are observations on the Sixers' win over Orlando:

Maxey gets back on track in the second

Maxey had a very frustrating night on Christmas, shooting 4 for 20 from the floor in the Sixers’ loss to the Heat.

The Sixers on Wednesday took a 5-0 lead and Maxey made his first field goal, a jumper from the left elbow. The positive trend didn’t last long, though. 

Maxey was called for his second foul with 7:56 left in the first quarter. Orlando went on a 12-2 run. Suggs scored nine of the Magic’s first 16 points, burning the Sixers on several occasions with timely cuts and capitalizing on inattentive defensive moments. 

When Maxey returned for the start of the second quarter, he faced a much larger player in 6-foot-7, 229-pound forward Chuma Okeke. Especially when Embiid’s out, the norm across the NBA now is attempting to stymie Maxey with size, physical defense and aggressive schemes like blitzes and full-court pressure. Maxey’s speed can often be a simple solution, as he showed with an explosive drive past Okeke followed by an and-one layup. 

Maxey scored 12 second-quarter points and the Sixers led by a half-dozen at intermission.

Reed, Bamba and effective zone D 

Paul Reed started again and stayed out of the deep, early foul trouble that sunk his night on Christmas.

The 24-year-old also made a corner three and swatted rookie Anthony Black's layup attempt in the first quarter. He did get whistled for a third foul with 4:12 to go in the second quarter on a moving screen call, but Reed was ultimately able to play 32 minutes. He was stellar in the fourth period and ended with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks.

Mo Bamba’s rim protection was a plus behind Reed, both in zone defense and as a traditional drop coverage big man. Bamba didn’t replicate his 18-point performance from Miami, but he twice blocked former teammate Wagner in the first quarter and was active on the offensive glass. Perhaps Bamba can fit well for the Sixers moving forward at times when Nurse wants to play zone in non-Embiid minutes and have a shot blocker on the back line. 

Orlando also helped the Sixers a bit by missing open long-range looks and going 3 for 16 from three-point range in the first half.

Kelly Oubre Jr. had a down game offensively (four points on 1-for-7 shooting), but his defensive effort shined. The play after sinking a corner three early in the third quarter, Oubre dove on the floor for a steal, creating a fast break that finished with a Harris layup and put the Sixers up 61-50.

Plenty of handy contributions

Harris was sturdy on defense against Banchero. He fell back to earth from three-point territory, shooting 1 for 5 after a 9-for-16 run over his prior two games, but Harris attacked throughout the evening and passed the 20-point mark for a third straight game. Melton also reached 20 points for the first time since Dec. 1 when he sunk two threes late in the fourth quarter.

Marcus Morris Sr. scored 14 of the second unit’s 26 points. Not an especially efficient night for Morris, but many of his contested jumpers were fair enough in lineups without Maxey that struggled to generate easy shots. It was useful for the Sixers on Monday to have a veteran forward capable of knocking down tough mid-range tries. Patrick Beverley (10 points, 4 for 7 from the field) chipped in with some difficult shotmaking as well.

Robert Covington re-entered the Sixers' rotation following a surprising DNP in Miami. He brought his usual ball-hunting tools and swiped two steals. The Sixers forced 16 turnovers and committed only 10.

Maxey's shooting woes resurfaced in the fourth quarter — he missed his first six field goals of the final period — and Orlando cut its deficit to 86-83 on threes by Banchero and Caleb Houstan.

The Sixers' collective response was strong. Reed kicked the ball out to Harris for an after-timeout triple and the Sixers sharpened their defensive focus, curbing unnecessary fouls and forcing Orlando to work hard for everything.

With a few days remaining in 2023, their defense propelled them to a first Embiid-less win of the season.

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