It would have been reasonable to expect the Sixers to struggle without starting point guard Ben Simmons, the primary initiator of offense for most of the season. It may not have been reasonable to expect the Sixers to have their best offensive night of the season, led by T.J. McConnell’s 13 assists and J.J. Redick’s eight threes, scoring 130 points against the hapless Orlando Magic in a 19 point win. But it happened!
McConnell and Redick were the primary co-conspirators, with McConnell galavanting around the court like a more hyper Steve Nash throughout the night and tearing open lanes to the rim. Pardon the stereotype, but he just played harder than anyone on the Magic all night or, quite honestly, harder than anyone on his own team.
McConnell was at one point thought to be at the fringes of the rotation in training camp, with Simmons, Markelle Fultz, and even Jerryd Bayless ahead of him in the point guard rotation. With injuries to Fultz and Bayless, McConnell has received minutes and produced. Tonight was a yet another example of how he’s not going to give away his shot. He upped his energy level early when his teammates were stagnant and lacking energy, chasing down rebounds on both ends and finding teammates for open threes.
Among those teammates was Redick, who had cruel intentions for one of his former teams. Redick tied his season-high with eight threes, which counted toward his 29 points, with six in the first half. His early shots accounted for the only Sixers offense early, and his later shots put the game out of reach.
Most of McConnell’s assists came via threes and layups, the best shots you could ask for. He got his teammates shots in places where they were both open and able to convert.
Dario Saric added 21 efficient points in one of his better games, which is probably not a coincidence given McConnell’s presence in place of Simmons. A cold-ridden Joel Embiid added 18 as well. They did their part, but McConnell was the story. His NBA career continues to be remarkable.
- Embiid looked particularly sluggish early on, with the Magic executing against him in their post defense and cutting off all his passing lanes, resulting in two turnovers and two missed shots in his first four possessions used and not looking as agile on the defensive end. An attempted block of an Aaron Gordon dunk, which resulted in one of Embiid’s patented nasty spills, seemed to wake him up. He scored 10 points early in the second quarter, which broke out the broomsticks for the Sixers to sweep the Magic away. Orlando never got within five after the halfway point of the second quarter.
- Joel’s defense after the first quarter looked Embiid-like, also. He played 29 minutes.
- Orlando has four ex-Sixers and boy, am I glad that we’ve moved on from all of those players. Elfrid Payton had his best game of the season on offense, but he and Nikola Vucevic defend pick-and-rolls like they’re playing a different sport. Shelvin Mack is barely an NBA player in his Sixers days and now five years later, and Mo Speights is up to his usual “shooting three times in forty seconds in garbage time” self.
- Richaun Holmes played 10 minutes at the power forward spot given the lack of depth the Sixers had tonight. Along with Simmons, Justin Anderson and Nik Stauskas continued to sit for injuries, so Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Bayless (who pulled double duty as backup point) were the only backup wings, so the time opened up. He had one dunk where he dribbled from the three point line and had no opposition in the paint, as Vucevic had apparently apparated off the court and possibly out of the arena entirely. Who knows, nobody could find him. Holmes didn’t look lost on defense, which was nice.
- The Sixers committed only 11 turnovers, likely a byproduct of the ball constantly being in or around McConnell’s hands rather than the usual egalitarian approach the Sixers have with Simmons around. It’ll be interesting whether or not they try to tighten up the offense when Ben returns.
- Finally, the Sixers now are 11-7, with another big-margin win, and have a +39 point differential against a tough schedule featuring five games against top 3 teams in the NBA. Without their second best player, they can still score efficiently. With their best player, they have one of the best three-man defensive cores in the NBA (I would argue second to Golden State’s wing/forward combination only). The Sixers, health-willing, are really good right now, and the entire league, including the Cavaliers - next in town on Monday - should be on notice.