Orlando Magic

Sixers clinch Eastern Conference's third seed with Celtics' loss

Sixers clinch Eastern Conference's third seed with Celtics' loss

It’s officially official: The Sixers have clinched the Eastern Conference’s third seed with the Celtics’ loss to the Magic Sunday night.

Unlike last season when the team won its last 16 games on its way to the three seed, the Sixers have kind of limped to the finish line. With Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler both missing time, it looked like the team was just kind of coasting until the postseason.

But hey, Brett Brown and company got the job done. Brown has had to manage what feels like three different teams. In 10 games as the fully functioning “Sixers 3.0,” the team is 8-2. Is that sample size a preview of what we’ll see in the postseason? Stay tuned.

So what will the team do now with Embiid and Butler with two games left to play? Embiid played 27 minutes Saturday night in Chicago. Butler hasn’t played in the last two games. Beyond the actual injuries, the biggest concern will be their fitness level — especially with Embiid.

With the Nets’ win over the Pacers Sunday night, Brooklyn has punched its ticket to the playoffs and is currently in the driver’s seat to play the Sixers in the first round as the sixth seed. Orlando could still leapfrog the Nets with a game to play, but with both teams at 41-40, Brooklyn holds the tiebreaker after winning the season series. 

Both teams have given the Sixers trouble at times this season. They split four games with each team. The Nets have gone through a gauntlet to close out the season while the Magic have been one of the best teams in the league since the All-Star break.

But after sleepwalking through the last couple weeks of the regular season, expect a different Sixers team this coming weekend.

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Sixers can apparently turn it on and off but should probably leave it on

Sixers can apparently turn it on and off but should probably leave it on

The better NBA teams seem like they can turn it on and off during the course of an 82-game season.

The defending champion Warriors are a perfect example. They got blown out by the lowly Mavericks Saturday — granted, without Stephen Curry — and then went out and beat a hot Pistons team Sunday.

The Sixers appear to have that gift — the ability to turn it on and off on a given night.

After watching the poor effort the Sixers gave in a 119-98 loss to the Magic at Amway Center Monday night (see observations) and with just eight games remaining in the regular season, it would probably behoove them to turn it on.

After big wins over the Bucks and Celtics, you can excuse away a disappointing loss to a young and feisty Hawks team that the Sixers clearly overlooked. But the effort they showed Monday night in Orlando was putrid.

They were sloppy early, committing eight turnovers in the first half. Their defensive was porous throughout, allowing the Magic to shoot 51.7 percent from the field and still having trouble defending the pick-and-roll. Ben Simmons was out with an illness, but there’s no excuse for the Sixers to go nearly an entire quarter without a field goal at one point in the second half.

Joel Embiid reportedly refused to talk to reporters postgame. Hard to blame him after this one.

You can blame Brett Brown. You can blame Embiid getting in foul trouble. You can blame the quiet Tobias Harris and JJ Redick. You can blame Simmons’ absence. 

Whatever you decide is the culprit for this one, it boils down to effort. The Magic looked like a desperate team. The Sixers looked like a team desperate to get home from a two-game road trip.

When they do return to the Wells Fargo Center, a tall task awaits them. They take on the Nets, a team that's fighting to secure its first playoff berth since 2015 and that's had the Sixers' number through three games this season. The only reason Brooklyn didn't take all three contests is because of a Herculean effort by Jimmy Butler in the Sixers' lone win back on Nov. 25.

The sky certainly isn’t falling. The Sixers are still in the driver’s seat for the East’s third seed and once they get to the playoffs, games like these will be a distant memory.

But with just eight games left and plenty to sort out with a new-look team, the Sixers should probably turn it on ... and keep it on.

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Magic 119, Sixers 98: Sixers with terrible effort vs. playoff-hungry Magic

Magic 119, Sixers 98: Sixers with terrible effort vs. playoff-hungry Magic

BOX SCORE

You can brush off a loss on the road to a feisty young Atlanta team, especially coming off two big wins.

But not showing up two nights later against an Orlando team fighting for its playoff life? Yikes.

The Sixers were physically in Orlando, but their effort was nowhere to be found in a 119-98 loss to the Magic at Amway Center Monday night.

The loss drops them to 47-27 on the season. Ben Simmons missed the game with an illness.

Here are observations from the game.

• The Sixers were sloppy early, turning the ball over eight times in the first half, leading to 10 Magic points. Because they couldn’t take care of the basketball, they were up by just three going into the locker room.

Much like in Atlanta, their defense was not tight. There were plenty of miscommunication issues, especially in the pick-and-roll. They allowed Orlando to shoot 37.9 percent from three.

At one point in the second half, the Sixers went 11:50 without a basket. The Magic are a good defensive team, but not that good. Missing Simmons hurts, but the Sixers still had plenty of offensive firepower on the floor Monday.

Their effort was lacking as the Magic looked like a team fighting for a playoff spot while the Sixers looked like a team playing out the string. It was truly a disappointing effort, especially coming off a disappointing loss.

• It was a weird first half for Joel Embiid, who nearly recorded a double-double but also turned the ball over four times and picked up two early fouls.

To start the second half, he decided to play straight bully ball, beating up on former Sixer Nikola Vucevic on multiple plays.

But the double teams became more aggressive after this basket and the Sixers' perimeter shooters were unable to make Orlando pay. The team went just 6 of 23 from three.

I'm not sure if it was him picking up his fourth or what, but Embiid didn't look right late in the game. He wasn't challenging anything at the rim and looked a step slow. He finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds.

• With Simmons out of the lineup, there was no doubt we’d be seeing Jimmy Butler used more as a point guard. Butler continues to look more than comfortable in that role as Brett Brown puts him in more situations that make him comfortable.

This pick-and-roll with Butler and Embiid was a thing of beauty.

I’d like to see Embiid roll to the rim more often. He and Butler can be an incredibly dangerous duo.

Butler was one of the few bright spots for the Sixers tonight, finishing with 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds. He was also one of the few players that actually showed anything defensively.

• With no Ben Simmons or James Ennis, T.J. McConnell got the start and Shake Milton and Jonathon Simmons got some run.

McConnell struggled, going 1 of 4 from the field with just two assists and two turnovers. He continues to be a liability when asked to defend bigger and more athletic players.

Milton, playing in his first NBA game since Feb. 2, was part of the first wave of subs. The rookie out of SMU has starred for the Blue Coats and gave a glimpse of what he brings to the table.

He made another nice cut to the basket on a Harris drive. Harris hit Milton backdoor, and he finished at the rim. Milton also nailed a three off the dribble. He just really has a feel for the game and can hit shots. He shows a ton of poise for a first-year player as well. He can also keep opposing guards in front of him.

The Sixers would have to convert Milton’s contract from a two-way deal to a standard NBA deal — which they can do at any time before the regular season ends with a corresponding move —  for him to be eligible for the playoffs, but if he keeps showing out like this, he’s going to give the team plenty to think about.

He finished with 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting from the field.

• The only benefit of the Sixers getting their doors blown off in the second half was we got to see first-round pick Zhaire Smith make his NBA debut. Smith actually ended the team's scoring drought with his first NBA basket, a three from the top of the key.

• The Sixers were abused by two of their former players, Vucevic and Michael Carter-Williams. Vucevic put up 28 points, 11 rebounds and four assists. Carter-Williams, the recent recipient of a second 10-day contract, put up 15 points, six rebounds and three assists. It just adds a little more salt to the wound.

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