Early on in the Philadelphia 76ers’ latest game against the Toronto Raptors, it looked like they’d be falling to 2-2. They were shooting horribly, they were committing some defensive breakdowns, and they trailed by as much as 14 points. But with Joel Embiid’s dominance leading the way, helped by a far more decisive Tobias Harris, a defensive turnaround and improved offensive execution in the second half, they got their biggest victory of the early season, prevailing to win, 100-93.
“These games are great for your character,” Doc Rivers said after the game. As any head coach would be, Rivers was thrilled that his team kept fighting to overcome the early deficit, improve against a quality opponent as the game progressed, and ultimately execute down the stretch to come out with a win. It’s the kind of game the Sixers have often lost before. Now, they’ll hope to build some momentum against a squad that’s, believe it or not, the only undefeated team left in the NBA right now: the Orlando Magic.
It’s the first time in the franchise’s history that the Magic have started a season 4-0. They may not have had the toughest schedule so far, but they’ve still started 2020-21 with a 113-107 win against the Miami Heat and beat the Washington Wizards and their feisty offense twice. They moved to 4-0 after beating the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, 118-107. Even though efficiency numbers don’t mean much after a few games, the Magic are off to a hot start on offense with a 114.3 offensive rating (5th in the NBA). They haven’t had outlier team three-point shooting on their side either, making just 34.9 percent of their threes to rank 19th in the league (they’ve had a boost at the line, though, ranking 4th in free throw attempts per game at 28.3).
As usual, Nikola Vucevic has been highly productive for Orlando. His blend of post-ups, pick-and-roll play, shooting and solid passing make him a well-rounded offensive weapon. He has averages of 20 points and 3.8 assists per game with 48.4 percent shooting and a 45 percent three-point stroke (on 5 attempts) to show for it. Vucevic ramped up his three-point volume last season to 4.7 attempts per game, and the Sixers will need to keep an eye on him in pick-and-pop situations. The Sixers’ defense is continuing to find some success with more aggressive pick-and-roll coverages this season as they bring bigs up higher against screens, which should play a part in covering Vucevic when he pops outside and shooters looking to pull up like Evan Fournier.
Besides scorers like Vucevic and Fournier (and Terrance Ross, who’s shooting well off the bench with 21 points and a 43.5 percent mark from three), Markelle Fultz has been a big part of Orlando’s early success. No, his three-point jumper still hasn’t come around yet. He’s only taking 2.5 threes a game and hitting them at a 30 percent clip (he shot 26.7 percent from three last season on 1.9 attempts a night). That said, he’s stepping up in all other areas with effective playmaking, driving, finishing and defense, averaging 18.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.
Rookie Cole Anthony, a dynamic scorer off the dribble, is another player to watch if you’re interested in this year’s rookie class. He would have been a good option for the Sixers as well if Tyrese Maxey wasn’t available with the 21st pick. The Magic have been getting some good production from their bench — from Anthony, to Michael Carter-Williams, to Khem Birch — so potential second unit improvement is something to keep an eye on.
The Magic have often been a sound, well-coached defensive team. They’ve suffered a big loss, though, as Jonathan Isaac — one of the NBA’s best defenders with his super disruptive play both on and off the ball — is out for the season as he recovers from knee surgery. Orlando has had some issues defending inside, and they’ve had a hard time guarding the pick-and-roll so far. In fact, against pick-and-roll plays including passes this season, they rank a measly 25th, surrendering 1.05 points per possession. If these struggles continue, it could help the Sixers and the likes of Seth Curry, Ben Simmons and Shake Milton get going with their own pick-and-roll attack. Joel Embiid could easily be set for another high-scoring game, especially when considering the stellar form he’s in right now.
Doc Rivers and the Sixers know they need to correct their road issues this season. After their latest loss away from home, an ugly 118-94 defeat against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they could really use another solid win in Orlando.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Orlando Magic
When: 6:30pm ET
Where: Amway Center, Orlando, FL
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic