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76ers Fall Flat in Second Half as they Lose to the Magic 119-98

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

Even with former Sixers guard Markelle Fultz out for tonight’s contest between Philadelphia and Orlando, there were still five active players that were candidates to have a ‘revenge game.’ Never heard of a revenge game? Well, it’s basically when an NBA player faces his former team and absolutely goes off. It’s a fairly common occurrence in the NBA, and with five potential candidates on the court tonight, it seemed likely one of them would get his revenge.

Considering their scoring prowess, it would have been reasonable to consider JJ Redick, Tobias Harris, or Nikola Vucevic the most likely of the five candidates. Jonathon Simmons, while not having a particularly stellar season, was traded before the deadline to Philadelphia and would be getting rotational minutes tonight for the first time in a couple weeks—perhaps he would have a breakout game? The answer to all four was, quite simply, no.

Tonight was former Sixers guard Michael Carter Williams’ revenge game, and it was as unlikely as it was perplexing. The current 10-day-contract player led the Magic off the bench with 15 points, also chipping in six rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block.

All jokes aside, the Orlando Magic outplayed the 76ers tonight in virtually every area of the game en route to a 119-98 victory. The final score isn’t entirely indicative of how the game played out, however. It was a tightly contested, back-and-forth affair for the vast majority of the contest. That is, until the latter half of the third quarter. From the 4:32 mark of the third quarter until the 4:50 mark of the fourth quarter, the Sixers failed to make a field goal. You can essentially throw out any noteworthy basketball analysis at that point. The Sixers lost because they could not make a basket for nearly twelve minutes. Credit the Magic for playing disciplined defense and disrupting the Sixers’ offensive rhythm. But still, that doesn’t excuse the team that is currently working to secure the third seed in the Eastern Conference from becoming entirely inept for nearly a quarter of the game.

Coming into tonight’s game, if the Sixers had plans of exorcising any leftover demons from Saturday’s demoralizing last-second loss to the Hawks, they’d have to go about doing it without Ben Simmons for only the second time all season (not including a game early in the season where he left early due to an injury). Without their primary facilitator, the Sixers would need to take a playmaking-by-committee approach against Orlando.

The first quarter bore out mixed results. The Sixers were able to get to the line early with well-timed off ball movement, but were still plagued by turnovers, committing four in the first six minutes of action. That stretch felt like a microcosm of the entire game, and an early indicator that it wasn’t Philly’s night.

Call it a lack of communication or poor passing reads. Either way, turnovers have been the team’s Achilles’ heel all regular season, and something that could be fatal against top competition in the postseason.

This is an area where the Sixers definitely missed Simmons. That may come as a surprise when you consider Simmons’ high turnover numbers since entering the league, but he’s currently in the midst of a stretch where he’s taking care of the ball extremely well. In the last seven games before tonight, Simmons committed a total of eleven turnovers (1.6 per game), which played a major role in the team’s recent 6-game winning streak.

Simmons’ absence was also felt in transition, where the Sixers struggled mightily to find offense. At one point early in the fourth quarter, Orlando outpaced the Sixers 13-0 in fast break points. Even with Simmons—one of the most electrifying transition players in basketball—out tonight, it is still inexcusable to struggle that mightily, especially with the number of scoring options the team has beyond the Aussie point guard.

The game really came down to the third quarter, where the Sixers were outscored 32-17. Evan Fournier scored 14 of his 24 points in the quarter, pacing all players for those twelve minutes after halftime. The Sixers were lackadaisical closing out on outside shooters, inefficient beyond the arc, and appeared lost in the half-court offense. Additionally, they held a considerable rebounding advantage most of the first half, but finished the game having been out-rebounded 44-39. This can be partially credited to a lack of communication and effort on the glass, an area that needs to be cleaned up by the time the playoffs come around.

Despite the loss, there were some silver linings throughout the night. With birthday boy T.J. McConnell inserted into the starting lineup, the backup guard minutes fell primarily to Shake Milton, who was recently recalled from the Delaware Blue Coats. The 6-foot-6, 205-pound Milton had been tearing up G League competition the past few weeks, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn he’d see action tonight prior to the game. He entered the game halfway through the first quarter and promptly hit his first shot. During his next stretch early in the second quarter, Milton scored on a beautiful baseline cut facilitated by Tobias Harris. He followed that up with a smooth catch-and-shoot triple a few minutes later. In all, Milton finished with 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field.

Sticking with silver linings, the Sixers experienced quite possibly the best one of the season tonight: Zhaire Smith’s NBA debut. Allow me to quickly provide context — Smith suffered a Jones fracture in August, was hospitalized with a serious allergic reaction soon after, and lost a troubling amount of weight as a result. It appeared for much of the season that Smith would not play NBA minutes until next year. That is, until he checked in for T.J. McConnell at the 5:34 mark of the 4th quarter. Less than a minute later, he smoothly connected on his first NBA shot, a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. For a player that has been through so much adversity to begin his NBA career, it was delightful to watch him step on the court and contribute in a positive way.

Thankfully, these two silver linings helped remove some of the sting from tonight’s loss. After beating Milwaukee and Boston last week, it’s discouraging that the Sixers have now lost two straight games to inferior opponents. Nevertheless, they’ll look to rebound on Thursday when they take on the Brooklyn Nets at the Wells Fargo Center. Until then, re-watch the Zhaire 3 and be thankful that he’s back.