With half of the bubble schedule behind them, Orlando lined up against Philadelphia looking to regain their winning ways.
Good news had proven harder to come by for the Magic after a pair of big opening wins, with injuries to Jonathan Issac, Aaron Gordon and Michael Carter-Williams further souring a mood brought on by two dispiriting losses. Undermanned and unfavored (even with Ben Simmons missing for the opposition), it was a game they needed to win to both seal a playoff spot and keep pace with the suddenly resurgent Nets in the race for the seventh seed.
Things got off to a clunky start for both sides, with turnovers and missed shots dominating the game’s opening minutes. Possessions started to settle when the teams looked inside, with Philadelphia getting both Joel Embiid and Al Horford clean looks at the basket and Orlando finding ways to let Nikola Vucevic go to work.
The Magic, sensing some trouble matching up with the size of the 76ers, junked things up with a zone defensive adjustment, channeling opposition shot attempts beyond the arc on the back of smart help rotations and a clogged up painted area. It worked, with Philadelphia starting the game just 2-8 from deep and 37.0% overall from the field for the quarter. Unfortunately for Orlando, their own shooting woes — 33.3% shooting in the period — meant they weren’t able to seize an advantage on the scoreboard. When the teams headed for the benches at the end of the first it was 25-23, Philly’s way.
The bench unit that opened the second quarter played with a decisiveness and energy that threatened to turn the tide. Markelle Fultz consistently probed with the ball in hand, doing damage from the mid-range that he’s fast making his own. Elsewhere, Khem Birch was a relentless screen-setter and rim-roller, while Wes Iwundu attacked whatever daylight he was presented with. The trio combined for 16 of the Magic’s first 33 points, and were largely responsible for keeping the Magic within striking distance.
After their early defensive struggles Orlando largely tightened things up at that end. However, some areas continued to plague the side, primarily defensive rebounding and the tracking of off-ball cutters. Tobias Harris, in particular, was able to take advantage of the fact; he had some nice finishes at the hoop and 4 offensive rebounds before halftime, accounting for half of the 8 that the 76ers accrued in the opening 24 minutes. These second chance opportunities were a huge reason why the Magic found themselves trailing, so it’s no surprise that once they addressed the defensive glass they were able to rattle off a late 12-6 run to seize the lead. Going into the major break it was 50-48 in Orlando’s favor.
Vucevic and DJ Augustin got their two-man game cooking to start the third, racking up 6 quick points for the Magic on the back of some ball-screen action. Augustin was also able to find the bottom of the net from deep, sparking another offensive surge for Orlando. They outscored the 76ers by a half-dozen over the next two-minutes-and-change, extending the lead to 7 and starting to look a little more comfortable in the execution of the game plan.
However, the 76ers’ offensive rebounding continued to plague the Magic. Horford was able to consistently take advantage of the undersized Gary Clark, while Harris and Embiid were both also able to corral second chance opportunities that were converted into points. This, combined with 12 Philadelphia free throw attempts in the period (including 8 for an aggressive Embiid), ensured that the margin remained close, despite the excellent offensive play of Orlando’s point guard tandem. Augustin and Fultz ultimately combined for 18 points in the quarter, enough to stake the Magic a two-point lead heading into the final twelve minutes of play, up 79-77.
The final quarter started shakily, with a number of recurring factors causing headaches for Orlando trouble. Embiid continued to live at the line, while Harris remained a nuisance close to the hoop. At the other end, Terrence Ross simply couldn’t buy a bucket, tossing up an airball from the mid-range before seeing Matisse Thybulle turn a blocked three-point attempt into a fastbreak dunk. The Human Torch was 0-10, and the Magic were reeling from a 9-0 Philadelphia run.
Coming out of a timeout Coach Steve Clifford decided to prioritize size to combat the opposition bigs, pairing Vucevic and Birch again in a bid to lock down the boards and shore up the paint. Philadelphia immediately attacked the Birch-at-four alignment, going to Harris in either isolation setups or as the screener on five consecutive possessions. Birch defended these sequences relatively well, also providing energy and hustle on offense that helped to keep the Magic in it. However, a cavalcade of fouls kept the 76ers on the line and put them in the bonus with more than six minutes left to play, making it incredibly difficult for the Magic to bridge the gap.
Seven straight misses from the field ultimately sealed Orlando’s fate, and told the story of their night. The team made just 8 of 32 attempts from deep, and couldn’t find the buckets they needed when the game started to slip away. After some fouls and free throws extended the final few minutes, the game came to a close at 108-101, Philadelphia’s way.
Orlando’s three stars
Hockey is a pretty great sport, so I thought I would steal one of its best little touches for my own game analysis: the three stars. Here is who caught my eye tonight.
First star: DJ Augustin — Had a solid game, including a great third quarter that positioned the Magic to potentially steal this one. Finished with 16, 4 and 3 on 5-7 shooting, and controlled the tempo in a disjointed and physical game.
Second star: Nikola Vucevic — Put up 21 points and 11 rebounds on reasonable shooting numbers, and was reliable defensively when the team shifted to zone looks. The Magic probably needed more from him, but he had his hands full with a tough individual matchup.
Third star: James Ennis — Had his best performance in pinstripes in what was a personal revenge game, posting 14 points and 9 rebounds while also making a statement early with the generation of free throw attempts.
The Magic had a chance to lock in a playoff spot with this one, but ultimately faded in the final quarter and now trail the Nets by 1.5 games for the seventh seed. Now they’ll wait firstly on results elsewhere, before a showdown with Boston provides them with an opportunity to make amends. They’ll be hoping for both better shooting and a more favorable outcome when the game tips off on Sunday.