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Strong second half defense, bench contributions lead Magic over Sixers

The Magic’s defense put together one of their best stretched of the season in the second half against the Sixers.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Orlando Magic Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Trailing by five at 66-71 midway through the third quarter, things were beginning to look slightly bleak for the Orlando Magic.

Philadelphia 76ers star center Joel Embiid was bullying anyone and everyone that came close to him, and fellow All-Star Jimmy Butler was getting into guys defensively, and getting to the rim seemingly at will. It seemed like the Sixers, which had made over 60 percent of their shots to that point, might begin to pull away.

Suddenly it all changed for the Magic.

A jumper from Evan Fournier, and a fast break dunk from Aaron Gordon cut the lead to one. Following another driving dunk from Embiid, Fournier rose up for a three-pointer to tie the game up. A pair of buckets, including a three from Nikola Vucevic, and another driving layup from Fournier put the Magic up three, 80-77.

The run was just beginning for the Magic, as they held the Sixers to just five points, and no made field goals over the next 11 minutes and 42 seconds. Shots clanked off the rim left and right. Suddenly the Sixers, who seemingly couldn’t miss early, had missed 15 shots in a row, and the Magic lead had quickly ballooned to a game-high 26.

“That’s obviously very impressive when you look at all the firepower they have on their team” said Nikola Vucevic about his teams defense in the second half. “A lot of guys who can score, and obviously they missed Ben Simmons, he’s a big part of what they do offensively.

“The first half our defense, obviously, wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t going to get it done against a team like that. Then we picked it up in the second half. Our rebounding was great, our defense, our helping. That’s what got us the win.”

Holding a team like the Sixers, who sit eighth in the league in offensive rating at 113.18 points per 100 possessions, to just 38 second half points was a huge win for the Magic.

While their defense was the star in the second half, they used some contributions from guys off the bench to really help grow, and sustain their lead.

Michael Carter-Williams, who signed his second 10-day contract with the team in the afternoon, finished the night with 15 points, six rebounds and three assists against one of his former teams. Khem Birch, who has been a consistent energy big man for the Magic since Mo Bamba went down with a stress fracture in his lower leg, finished the night with 10 points and five rebounds.

The contributions from both of them helped the Magic maintain their lead, from Carter-Williams missing a three pointer, and quickly following his miss with an offensive rebound and lay in, to Birch finishing a thunderous put back dunk. Birch also wrecked havoc on the Sixers as a roll man late, getting to the foul line 10 times on the evening.

Coach Steve Clifford called Carter-Williams “a catalyst” to the run that his team made in the second half.

“They were huge,” said Vucevic when asked about their contributions. “MCW, ever since he’s been here, he’s brought energy, especially on the defensive end, rebounding the ball... Tonight he had a couple big plays, a couple steals on Embiid in the post. All those little things add up.

“Khem? Khem does what he does. He plays hard, competes. He’s a great roller, defends, rebounds. Those are the things you want him to do. They stick to their rolls, and when they do it every night, you can rely on them. A lot of the times when they come off the bench it can break the game wide open.”

With one of their better wins on the season behind them, the Magic have to quickly refocus themselves for another massive game on Tuesday night in Miami. Sitting a half game behind their in-state rivals for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, a win on Tuesday night could be the biggest of the season, and one that ultimately helps propel them into that final spot.

They’ll need the same contributions they got on Monday night to win, but they have confidence and feel as though what they showed on Monday night can carry over.

“The game that we played tonight will travel,” said Clifford. “Defend, good purpose on offense, move the ball inside-out. That’s how we have to play.”