ORLANDO, Fla. – As expected, the ball was in Joel Embiid’s hands as the overtime clock ticked down. And then, as expected, it moved to James Harden’s. Then it found Tobias Harris in the right corner, where the oft-maligned 76er who has taken a back seat since Harden arrived in Philly let it fly.
That go-ahead long ball with 31.7 seconds remaining in overtime ultimately proved to be the game-winner, lifting the Sixers to a 116-114 squeaker over the Orlando Magic Sunday night at the Amway Center.
“It was just a great read and a great pass,” Harris said of the shot. “It wasn’t how we drew up the play, but it was kind of what came about through just the actions in itself. It was a great offensive possession. ...
“For me personally, it’s a big shot. And I think it’s just a combination of patience with everything and opportunity and looks that I get on the floor, and just [being] able to be settled in what things are now.”
This should have been a prime opportunity for a get-right game for the Sixers (41-25) after getting blasted by 29 points by the Brooklyn Nets in an emotionally charged Thursday night game at the Wells Fargo Center. Instead, the Sixers again sputtered out of the gate against an Eastern Conference bottom-dweller, clawed back from 17 points down to tie the game about midway through the third quarter, and then needed an extra five minutes to eek out the victory.
A win is a win, however. And that victory pushed the Sixers back into second place in the Eastern Conference, percentage points ahead of the defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks (42-26) and a half-game in front of the fourth-place Chicago Bulls (41-26).
Yet even that looked in doubt with less than two minutes to play in overtime, when the Magic’s Cole Anthony sank back-to-back three-pointers to give the Magic a 113-109 lead. Harden answered with a driving layup that rolled around and in, before Harris’ go-ahead bomb.
On the Magic’s ensuing possession, Matisse Thybulle was initially called for a foul on a shot attempt by Anthony, but it was overturned on a coach’s challenge by Doc Rivers. Then the Sixers’ Tyrese Maxey, the Magic’s Franz Wagner, and Harden traded 1-for-2 trips at the foul line, before Anthony missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
The Sixers had a chance to win the game on their final possession of regulation. But Harden missed a driving layup, Embiid could not convert the follow and, after the ball was knocked out of bounds by the Magic and Embiid was swarmed on the ensuing inbounds pass, Maxey missed a three-pointer from the right wing with 1.3 seconds to play.
After spending much of the first half down double digits, the Sixers made their first push with a 16-4 run after halftime. They held the Magic (18-51) without a field goal for nearly seven minutes of game action. Embiid finally caught some rhythm during that stretch, with a putback that cut Orlando’s lead to 60-58 with about seven minutes to play in the third quarter, a jumper that got the Sixers within 61-60 midway through the period, and the free throws that tied the score at 63.
Orlando then rebuilt a 10-point advantage when a three-pointer by former Sixer Markelle Fultz made the score 88-78 early in the fourth, before the Sixers charged again.
They took a 101-98 led — and briefly turned the Magic’s home arena into the Wells Fargo Center South — when Harden and Embiid buried back-to-back three-pointers with less than five minutes to play. Then, neither team created separation in regulation.
Embiid labored his way to 35 points on 9-of-28 shooting and 15-of-17 from the free-throw line (including two late misses in regulation that would have given the Sixers a two-point lead), to go along with 16 rebounds and 7 assists. Harden also struggled with his shot for the second consecutive game until late, going 5-of-19 from the floor but 13-of-15 from the free-throw line to finish with 26 points, 6 rebounds, and 6 assists.
Next, the Sixers will face a week’s worth of playoff-caliber opponents, starting with Monday’s home game against the Denver Nuggets and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. Then, they’ll play at Cleveland Wednesday before hosting the Dallas Mavericks Friday, the Toronto Raptors Sunday and the East-leading Miami Heat next Monday.
Another slow start
Slow starts are becoming a trend since Harden joined the Sixers. They again struggled on both ends of the floor in the first half Sunday night, allowing Orlando to shoot 53.7% while making just 33.3% of its field-goal attempts (including 4-of-15 from three-point range). A Wendell Carter Jr. three-pointer with about three minutes remaining in the second quarter pushed the Magic’s lead to 57-40.
“The first half, they just literally ran us out the gym,” Rivers said.
Offensively, Harris kept the Sixers relatively afloat with his best game since the Harden trade, sparked by some deliberate early looks and off-ball movement. He scored 15 of his 26 points in the first half on 6-of-10 shooting. But Embiid started the game 3-of-14, while Harden missed six of his first seven shots and Maxey began a quiet 2-of-6 .
The Sixers have proved they can claw back from double-digit deficits against the New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and, now, the Magic. But they could not complete the rally against the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets within the past two weeks, and that will be much tougher during the playoffs.
“We’ve fought back in most of them, but I would like not to do that,” Rivers said. “I would love to get off to a good start. I do think it starts on the defensive end. It’s almost like we have to get punched in the mouth before we turn on our defensive intensity.
“That third quarter, that stretch of defense was phenomenal. But we have to start the game that way. I’m going to go watch the film and figure out why.”
Sixers fans again made their presence heard inside the Amway Center. That included a smattering of boos that rippled through the stands when Fultz, the Sixers’ former No. 1 overall draft pick, checked in for the first time about midway through the first quarter.
Fultz, however, was terrific in his role, finishing with 8 points, 11 assists, and 4 rebounds in 19 minutes. It was Fultz’s sixth game back after recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained last January.
He hit a pull-up jumper with about four minutes to play in the first, then dished to Gary Harris for a three-pointer that put the Magic up 26-22. Early in the second, he swiped the ball from Harden and found Mo Wagner wide-open on the other end of the court for an easy dunk.
Fultz was booed again when he re-entered midway through the third quarter, but quickly found Mo Bamba for a finish at the rim and then got to the basket for a go-ahead reverse layup. Later, he bounced a pass to Bamba in the corner for a three-pointer, found R.J. Hampton for a shot beyond the arc and then buried his own three to give the Magic an 88-78 lead with about 10 minutes to play.
“I love young guards that know who they are,” Rivers said of Fultz. “He’s not coming down, trying to jack threes up. He’s going to beat you and get to the basket, and he knows he’s going to do that. He makes excellent decisions. He made a three tonight, but that’s not what he’s about. He’s about putting pressure [on the defense].
“I’m just happy for him. That kid’s gone through a lot, from confidence to injuries to being moved, and he’s still hanging in there. It’s pretty cool.”
Another man with connections to both teams received a much warmer reception. Jameer Nelson, who helped the Magic reach the NBA Finals during his playing career and is now the assistant general manager of the Sixers’ G League affiliate Delaware Blue Coats, was on-site for the game and got a video-board shout-out during a first-quarter timeout.
Rivers continues to tinker with his stretch-run rotation. He went with a nine-man group during Sunday, including playing Isaiah Joe (3 points, 2 rebounds, 1 steal in 13 minutes) over Furkan Korkmaz.
Additionally, Georges Niang (16 points, 4 rebounds, 36 minutes) closed the second quarter with the rest of the starters over Thybulle (0 points on 0-of-4 shooting) and played the bulk of crunch time until Thybulle briefly re-entered as a defensive sub near the end of regulation and overtime.
“That’s what you work for,” Niang said. “You work to obviously have your trust of your team that out there, down the stretch, that they want you to be a part of your team closing out victories. Since I started talking with the 76ers in free agency, Doc has believed in me and what I can do. It’s great that I can continue to help the team out.”
Added Rivers: “Georges will probably need three or four beers, for sure, tonight to get over it for tomorrow.”