3 observations after Sixers overcome zone problems to squeak by Magic


Though it wasn’t an easy night at the office, the Sixers only required 48 minutes of basketball Monday night. 

They followed a double overtime loss Saturday to the Timberwolves with a 101-96 win over the lowly Magic at Wells Fargo Center.

Seth Curry scored a team-high 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting. Joel Embiid had 16 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.

Orlando rookie Franz Wagner posted 27 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The Sixers will begin a four-game road trip Wednesday against the Celtics. Here are observations on their tight win over the Magic: 

Starters back together 

Embiid’s legs were not completely shot after he played 45 minutes Saturday in his first game back from COVID-19.

He scored the game’s first basket on a pull-up jumper and also drew an early foul on Wendell Carter Jr. with a rip-through move. 

Embiid’s passing was a positive early in the game. He was deliberate when double teamed, found Tobias Harris (17 points, nine rebounds) on a high-low, and ran effective two-man games with both Curry and Tyrese Maxey (nine points on 2-for-12 shooting, nine assists, eight rebounds). 

Shooting touch was a problem for the big man, though, as he started 2 for 10 from the floor.  

Danny Green returned to the Sixers’ starting lineup, replacing Matisse Thybulle. Head coach Doc Rivers said pregame he expects Green will be on a minutes restriction for at least another week or two as the veteran returns from a left hamstring injury. The conversation of whether Green or Thybulle makes more sense as a starter is interesting, but it’s not especially relevant until Green’s unlimited. For the time being, the Sixers will be glad everyone in the opening-night rotation is available. 


Rivers evidently liked the idea of getting his typical starters accustomed to playing together again, using those five players for the opening nine minutes and 10 seconds before transitioning to an all-bench lineup. The Sixers took a 27-14 lead with their first unit. 

Any zone busters? 

Orlando turned to a zone defense at the start of the second period. The Sixers’ first possession against it was a bad one as Thybulle dribbled into the middle and then turned the ball over on an attempted dump-off pass to Andre Drummond.

Rivers was frustrated on the sidelines, seemingly displeased by the lack of movement. However, Georges Niang and Thybulle each hit open three-pointers against the zone. There were also a few plays on which Drummond was able to set a good ball screen and allow a Sixers guard to penetrate into a seam. 

The optimistic outlook on the Sixers is that they’re equipped to handle zone. Niang and Furkan Korkmaz will fire catch-and-shoot threes (and generally make them at a decent rate). Curry and Green fall under the same category on the first unit. Drummond is an elite offensive rebounder and enjoys dishing the ball to teammates from the high post. His six offensive boards in 18 minutes ended up being a difference-maker.

Still, zones sometimes cause stumbles when teams over-pass, happen to miss wide-open shots, or simply don’t attack with confidence. The Sixers checked those boxes Monday. 

The team’s starters faced the Magic’s zone to begin the second half and missed their first three field goals, including an Embiid fadeaway try late in the shot clock. 

Again, Rivers was understandably unhappy with his team’s execution. “Move the ball, come on!” he shouted at Maxey after the 21-year-old accepted an Embiid screen and stepped into a wing three without any passes on the possession. Orlando took a 64-62 lead on a Jalen Suggs fast-break dunk with 6:20 left in the third, erasing a deficit as high as 16 points and prompting boos from the crowd. 

The zone popped up again in the final minutes and the Sixers still could not decisively crack it, playing tentative basketball across the board. They'll need to review this tape.

“We’ve had no problem with zone overall (besides) tonight," Rivers said. “It’s hard to beat a zone when there’s no movement, there’s no downhill attacks. It was the slowest zone offense — maybe ever.

“We finally came out of two timeouts and ran our zone offense and scored both times, because there was pace. But the ball just was sticking tonight; it wasn’t moving. We didn’t get in the paint enough. I thought Shake (Milton) had a great stretch, because he kept getting into the paint. That’s what allowed Andre to get to the glass. But other than that, not a lot.”


Curry key in Sixers squeaking by

Curry and Harris combined for 27 first-half points on 12-for-15 shooting.

As the Sixers’ offense floundered, Curry provided timely shotmaking. He sunk a contested three to tie the game at 68-all and another triple to put the Sixers ahead 76-74.

His corner three to extend the Sixers' edge to 94-89 led the home fans to let out a mini-sigh of relief.

Those jumpers weren’t footnotes in a blowout because of the Sixers’ defensive lapses after a strong start. The team also committed several poor turnovers that led to easy Magic transition offense in the third period. Orlando was feisty and deserves credit for making the most of its window back into the game, but the Sixers shouldn’t have needed anything special to win.

“Just playing bad basketball," Curry said. “It’s pretty simple. Lot of bad plays on offense and defense for the whole team. We’ve got to figure out how to be better for 48 minutes. Really, the last two games we haven’t been playing good basketball.”

A team that dropped to 4-18 Monday forced the Sixers to sweat. They'll take the victory, though, and inch back over .500 at 11-10. It's a lot better than the alternative leading into another road trip. 

“It was a win," Rivers said. “Not inspired. I thought the first six minutes we played pretty much the right way with a lot of energy. And then after that, I just didn’t think we played very well.

“I thought Drum basically changed the game with his offensive rebounding and his effort. But other than that … I’ll take any win. I’d rather win these than lose these, and so you’ll take them and keep pushing on.”