James Harden and Joel Embiid each looked like players who should be named when the NBA announces its All-Star reserves on Thursday night.
The Sixers' star duo led the team to a bounce-back win Wednesday at Wells Fargo Center as the team improved to 33-17 with a 105-94 victory over the Magic. The Sixers had dropped the first game of their mini-series against Orlando on Monday.
Embiid yet again played after being listed as questionable with left foot soreness. He led the Sixers with 28 points and 11 rebounds.
Harden posted 26 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.
Markelle Fultz scored a team-high 18 points for the Magic.
The Sixers’ first of three straight road games before the Feb. 9 trade deadline will be Friday night against the Spurs. Here are observations on their victory Wednesday:
Sixers flip switch, end first on huge run
While Harden and Embiid each earned early trips to the foul line, the Sixers were irritated with the officiating just as they’d been Monday.
Paolo Banchero drew the second foul on P.J. Tucker with 8:26 left in the first quarter, although Sixers head coach Doc Rivers kept Tucker in for a few minutes before substituting him out for Tyrese Maxey as usual. The Sixers were fortunate that Orlando went 4 for 9 on free throws in the first.
Still, the team’s perimeter defense was not initially much improved from Monday. Harden in particular had several poor moments. After committing a turnover on an ambitious, long-range pass to Embiiid, Harden allowed Banchero to blow past him for a dunk. On Orlando’s next possession, Banchero slid by Harden again before creating contact and getting himself two foul shots. The Sixers did not look sturdy on the ball across the board.
Georges Niang helped right the ship by taking a charge on Fultz. He then made a basic but positive play offensively, feeding Embiid on a re-post. Embiid drop stepped and laid the ball in for two of his 16 first-quarter points. He also made four free throws and set Matisse Thybulle up for two by spotting his baseline cut.
To cap a 17-0 run to close the first quarter, Embiid flashed some of his open-court ball handling skill. He grabbed a defensive rebound, tossed a behind-the-back pass to Shake Milton, and got the ball back for a buzzer-beating layup that put the Sixers up 37-23. He then took his first rest of the evening.
Backup big issues
The Sixers’ backup center play did not inspire great confidence in where the team stands at that spot heading into the trade deadline.
Montrezl Harrell began the second quarter and the Sixers’ rim protection considerably worsened. Rivers changed things up quickly, subbing out Harrell after an and-one Cole Anthony leaner with 9:45 to go in the second and inserting Paul Reed. The 23-year-old played the next three minutes or so and had a minimal impact. His final action was setting a moving screen.
At power forward, Rivers turned to Niang when Tucker picked up his third foul with 4:43 left in the second quarter. Rookie of the Year favorite Banchero won that matchup handily, knocking down two mid-range jumpers and drawing Niang’s third foul.
Orlando’s size can trouble many opponents, and the Sixers are not a supersized team by any means. It helps that the Sixers have several players capable of “guarding up” like Thybulle, De’Anthony Melton and Milton. However, they’re undeniably small behind Embiid with their current options at backup center. Though the Sixers have gone 8-4 this year without Embiid, that lack of size is among the valid reasons for concern at the position. Clearly, Harrell has not decisively seized the spot.
Off nights from Maxey (2 for 11 from the floor) and Niang (1 for 6 from three-point range) hurt the second unit and made the steep decline in level from Embiid to the Sixers’ backup centers more glaring.
Harden the marksman
Maxey replaced Niang for the end of the first half and the Magic closed it out well. Fultz’s spinning lefty layup beat the second-quarter buzzer and cut the Sixers’ lead to 56-53.
Despite impressive individual shotmaking from Harden and Embiid, the Sixers could not meaningfully extend their advantage in the third quarter. Tobias Harris provided a couple of timely buckets to help them at least stay in front, including a fast-break layup and a corner three off of a slick, lefty Maxey feed.
After a 19-giveaway game Monday, the Sixers again committed quite a few careless turnovers and again finished with 19 overall. In the third quarter, Jalen Suggs ripped the ball from Embiid’s hands in the backcourt and then scored an and-one layup on him. Harden’s instincts in transition were far less sharp than his norm.
His ability to bail out unpromising possessions with tough three-pointers remained very valuable. With the Magic down just two points early in the fourth quarter, Harden made a big triple. The Sixers then put together a crucial Embiid-less run that featured Maxey’s first basket of the night, a corner triple. Harden assisted a Harrell dunk, Niang sunk a three, and the Sixers’ lead suddenly swelled to 13 points.
Harden's six made threes Wednesday night were his most in a game as a Sixer. Just about every one was vital in the team salvaging a split against Orlando.