In their Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Sixers played like they could beat anybody. Friday night, they failed to beat the Orlando Magic, who entered the game 13-17.
They fell to Orlando at Amway Center, 98-97, dropping to 23-11 on the season and snapping a three-game win streak.
Down 11 points with 1:49 to go, the Sixers rallied. They cut the deficit to three, and two missed free throws by Markelle Fultz opened the door. Ben Simmons' inbounds pass with 22.1 seconds left was intercepted by Evan Fournier. The Magic guard split his foul shots, helping to keep the Sixers in it, and Joel Embiid's three with 5.1 seconds to go made it a one-point game.
Simmons then picked off Aaron Gordon's inbounds pass and, with no timeouts left, tossed the ball to Embiid as he was falling out of bounds. Embiid's long three-pointer at the buzzer fell short.
The Miami Heat are up next on Saturday night (8 p.m./NBCSP).
Here are observations from the loss:
Defense rules the day … and lackluster offense
Neither team had much offensive success early. Orlando missed 25 of its first 36 shots, while the Sixers started 1 of 8 from three. They finished 10 of 29 on threes after going 21 of 44 on Christmas.
Though the Magic did a solid job on defense, the Sixers didn’t hit many of the open looks they’d made Wednesday vs. Milwaukee, their ball movement wasn’t nearly as sharp and they committed 15 turnovers.
Al Horford was a peripheral figure on offense for most of the game, not scoring until there were less than four minutes left in the third quarter, but he had a decent game defensively, contesting shots well at the rim and buying his teammates time when they fell behind on pick-and-rolls. Still, seven points from the Sixers’ power forwards — Mike Scott had zero in 15 minutes — is obviously insufficient.
Markelle Fultz, willing shooter
The Sixers played well, well off their former No. 1 pick, encouraging Fultz to shoot.
Fultz did, hitting 2 of 4 three-pointers. His jumper still is far from smooth, but he’s taken 51 threes this season, making 14 (27.5 percent). His makes didn’t deter the Sixers from their logical game plan — they preferred a three-point attempt from a low-percentage outside shooter over a Fultz drive.
In the never-ending discussion about Simmons’ jump shot, it’s an important reminder: Increased volume does not necessarily equate to increased respect from opposing defenses.
Simmons, who attempted one fadeaway jumper out of necessity late in the shot clock, had 13 points, nine rebounds and seven assists against the same defensive approach. His offensive performance was a couple of levels below his past three games, when he totaled an incredible 42 assists.
Growing a partnership
Embiid picked up where he left off on Christmas, scoring seven of the Sixers’ first nine points and “quarterbacking the gym” from the post, as Brett Brown would say.
He cooled off in a scoreless second quarter, though, and ended up with 24 points (8 of 21 shooting) and 11 rebounds. After his hot start, Embiid seemed to lose his rhythm and sense of timing. He also saw several open or lightly contested jumpers go in and out.
One bright spot is that the pick-and-roll between Embiid and Josh Richardson continues to make gradual progress. Little of Richardson’s pick-and-roll offense comes in the form of straight line drives to the rim. His patience is a strength, but it also means that the Embiid-Richardson partnership isn’t a simple one to develop.
“When you play with cross-back guards — we call it bulldogging,” Brown said on Christmas. “So Joel holds the screen and then J-Rich, he's either going to take off or he's going to bulldog and play cross-back game and that dynamic of a pick-and-roll partnership evolves. … That growth, that knowledge, that familiarity takes time.”
Not enough help from the bench
The Sixers only got 14 points from their bench Friday as Furkan Korkmaz (3 of 9) came back to earth after two strong shooting games and neither Scott nor James Ennis made a field goal.
Trey Burke was the team’s backup point guard for the fifth straight game. In his first stint, Burke defended 6-foot D.J. Augustin capably and burst past him twice on the other end, scoring five points. Burke was outplayed by Augustin the next time the two squared off late in the third quarter, though, failing to generate good half-court offense and allowing Augustin to sink a three.
Games like these make one wonder how much general manager Elton Brand should value bench scoring as he explores options before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.
“As GM, I’ll always look at that,” he said Wednesday. “I’ll always look at that. Any way I can make the team better. But again, I’m encouraged about where we are and I look forward to having that group grow and compete against upper-level teams.”
Of course, the Sixers’ bench should look better when impressive 3-and-D rookie Matisse Thybulle returns from a right knee injury.
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