Doc Rivers’ first instinct Monday night was not to highlight a specific problem or chalk his team's poor performance up as one game in a long season.
The Sixers’ head coach was asked what went wrong in the team’s loss at Wells Fargo Center to the Magic, a defeat that snapped the Sixers’ run of seven straight victories and 20 wins in 24 games.
“Everything,” Rivers said. “Really. We played great to start the game. I thought we had great effort starting the game. Towards the end of the first quarter on, I thought they played harder, faster, tougher, more physical. They deserved to win the game.”
Rivers did later narrow in on the two factors that contributed to Orlando attempting 14 more field goals than the Sixers and ultimately wiping out a 21-point deficit. The Magic pulled down 15 offensive rebounds and forced 19 turnovers.
“The couple of things we talked about before the game were offensive rebounds and turnovers give their team energy, because they’re long, they’re athletic, it gets them out running,” Rivers said. “And then once they get their offense going, it gives them energy. So we did exactly what we were not supposed to do.”
Orlando also held a significant edge in terms of free-throw attempts. After the Sixers took the game’s first eight foul shots, the Magic had a 30-15 advantage.
“I thought they were more physical,” Rivers said. “I believe the energy goes to that team. I thought we started off the game with all the fouls, right? I thought the first eight minutes, we were the aggressor and we got to the foul line. The rest of the game, they were the aggressor and they got to the foul line. So I didn’t think this was an officiating thing at all.”
Joel Embiid, who scored only nine of his team-high 30 points after halftime, agreed with Rivers about rebounding and turnovers being problematic. He had a decidedly different perspective on the officiating.
“Obviously they also got a lot of calls,” Embiid said. “They got to the free-throw line a lot and we didn’t. They got a favorable whistle.
“But it’s really been the story of our season. If we take care of the ball, we usually put ourselves in great situations. Tonight we just turned the ball over a lot.”
The Sixers have indeed done very well when they’ve avoided high-turnover games. Monday was their fifth outing with 19 or more turnovers this season, per Basketball Reference. They’re 1-4 in those games and 31-13 otherwise.
Those giveaways placed greater pressure Monday on the Sixers’ transition defense, although turnovers are certainly not the only reason the team has regressed in that area this month. In January, Sixers opponents had transition plays off live-ball rebounds on a league-high 33.9 percent of possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Overall, the Sixers ranked 27th in opponents' points added per 100 possessions through transition play.
The Sixers dropped from fifth in defensive rating outside of garbage time in December to 23rd in January. Their 11-3 record was largely driven by an excellent 122.2 offensive rating, which ranked second.
“Transition is rearing its head back up for us,” Rivers said. “Getting beat off the dribble is starting to come back up. Low man defensively. So I would say those three things. And then we lose our physicality in games. It happened in the first half the other night (against the Nuggets). The second half, we had it. Those are the things we have to get back.”
The Sixers’ defense was weakened late against the Magic by Embiid picking up three fouls between the 8:05 and 6:42 mark of the fourth quarter. Rivers kept Embiid in with five fouls and played zone defense, but the Sixers could not right the ship.
“It changes everything,” Embiid said of playing with five fouls. “You can’t be as aggressive defensively, obviously. … And on the offensive end, when you’re playing against someone that flops a lot and with the referees and the way they went about this game, we weren’t getting anything. So it’s hard, but you’ve just got to try to do it, and I just wasn’t good enough.”
“The flops a lot” remark was seemingly in reference to Mo Wagner, who boosted Orlando’s bench Monday with 22 points in 22 minutes.
In his assessment of the Sixers’ late-game offense, Rivers mentioned flopping as an issue for his own team.
“Ball didn’t move,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think we played with any pace. I thought their pressure, their physicality — I thought they got into us, they denied. We turned the ball over. We were flopping; we tried to draw fouls the whole half. I just thought we turned it off and couldn’t get it back, and that’s humility. Probably needed the game.”
The Sixers will see the Magic again Wednesday night and expect an improved showing.
“We’ll watch film and get better,” James Harden said. “I think we were just getting a little complacent and whatnot. That’s a part of it. So we’ll watch film, get better and try to come out with a win.”