The Orlando Magic didn't play their best game, but they did enough late to keep a lead against the 76ers, defeating them 105-97.
Jahlil Okafor early on ate Dewayne Dedmon's dinner, finishing the first quarter with 10 points on five nice post moves. Dedmon clearly was frustrated and soon replaced by Jason Smith, who immediately proceeded to shove Okafor as much as he could.
Let's detour here, because I mentioned Jason Smith, who as mentioned threw an elbow at Nerlens Noel and led to the response which got Noel ejected. NBA officials get a lot of unnecessary flak - they have a very difficult job. NBA players move very fast, and some of what the NBA asks them to judge on a real-time basis is quite ridiculous. But you would think they'd be aware of the reputations of players like Jason Smith. Players who intentionally antagonize others, or hip check others in mid air, in an effort to coax responses like the one Nerlens Noel had when Smith threw an elbow at him, should be closely watched and monitored throughout.
Smith had been elbowing and shoving and setting hard picks (knee out, blindside, etc.) all night and the officials failed to do anything about it. He obviously felt good enough to throw an unwarranted elbow and only receive an offensive foul for it.
Noel's response does warrant the ejection - no argument here, even in the heat of a moment a head shot isn't warranted or condoned. But Tony Brown, Dedric Taylor, and James Williams - last night's officials - as a crew were at fault for letting it get to that point. And let's only briefly mention the hideous overturn of a charge call late in the game (in the Sixers' favor) because it was ultimately so unimportant.
Anyway, Okafor ended up finishing with only 19 points after the strong first quarter. Dedmon recovered and had a strong defensive second half, and only Isaiah Canaan finally putting in a good game kept the Sixers in it. Canaan went 6-12 on threes and finished with 23 points. Canaan's surge was a welcome sight after the Sixers complimented Okafor's first quarter performance by shooting 0-8 on threes, all of them open.
Down the stretch, Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier made enough plays to keep the Magic ahead. Fournier was able to use a strength advantage over Nik Stauskas to create separation, while Payton buzzed by T.J. McConnell and found no help defender in the paint. It helped them keep the Sixers at an arm's length as the game wound down.
Here are a few more observations:
1. Okafor's defense would be a bigger issue to me if this wasn't what we should have expected. His defense right now is, in a word, submissive. In two words, it lacks resistance. With how much he's playing (over 34 minutes a game) it's not surprising his defense is getting worse as he plays more. The minutes workload is new, the 24 second shot clock is new, the back-to-backs with travel are new, everything is new. Not everything about Okafor is as smooth as his post offense.
2. The Sixers attempted an interesting late-game trapping defense that including bringing Christian Wood off the bench for the first time all night. It forced a turnover on the first possession and got the Sixers a foul on their preferred foul shooter (Payton) the second time around.
3. T.J. McConnell isn't crashing back down to earth. He's not 12 assists and zero turnovers all the time, but he can pass and really helps the Sixers at a spot where they should be stronger: the defensive boards. Okafor is weak there, and lineups with McConnell have a higher rebounding rate than opponents. With him off the court, the team is worse than the opposition.
I don't believe this is small sample size theater either - he crashes the defensive boards hard. We'll see if this holds over time.
4. Jerami Grant also left the game after getting a hand strike to the eye (unintentionally) from Dedmon on a rebound attempt. He went down immediately and did not return. Sixers PR called the injury a "corneal abrasion.". Double vision or blurry vision can take days or weeks to be restored depending on how serious it is. Grant had been having a stellar outing, especially on the defensive end of the court, and we at Liberty Ballers wish him a speedy recovery.
5. Kendall Marshall was actively giving input to Brown on the bench late in the fourth quarter and is off the bench at every timeout dishing high fives to the players walking off the count. I love that.
6. The Sixers welcome the Chicago Bulls to The Center on Monday night, looking again for that elusive first victory.