Game Preview: Sixers are soaring, but have to avoid a Magic trap

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The Philadelphia 76ers are coming off of their best win of the year. On Christmas day, they celebrated with a dismantling of the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA’s best team by record. The team is riding high as they deserve to be but they need to stay focused on the next game. They’ll be making the trip down to sunny Orlando Florida to face the Magic. The Magic are currently the 8th seed in the East but there is some real talent on this team led by Nikola Vucevic.

The Magic are a very young team with some quality vets mixed in. This team really should sell off the vets and build around Fultz, Isaac, and Bamba, but give them credit for fighting for the playoffs.

A strong defensive team, the Magic have the ability to force close games. While their defense is impressive, their offense struggles mightily, scoring only 103.5 points per game, the Magic rank 29th in the league. Even still, you must be wary of young defensive teams with quality coaches. Sometimes they’ll surprise you and find a way to win if you let them.

This will be the first game of a back-to-back with the next game being against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. It will be interesting to see if Embiid plays tonight as the original plan was for him to rest for the easy game of a back-to-back. Obviously that hasn’t been the case recently but that could always change.

Keys to the game

Run the Hurry-up

Pace is an interesting stat, it is an estimate of the number of possessions by a team per 48 minutes. The Sixers currently rank 19th in the NBA in Pace so why should they run the floor? Two reasons:

First, while the Sixers rank worse than middle of the pack in Pace, the Magic rank 27th. The Magic flat out can not play up-tempo, they may have a couple of players (Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon) who thrive in it, but the rest of the team is either too slow or too raw. The Magic tend to slow things down so they can best utilize Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, and D.J. Augustin. Making the Magic uncomfortable should be a priority, keep them running and you can tire-out players or force them into mistakes.

Second, again while the Sixers rank worse than middle of the pack in Pace, that is partly by design. This team is training for the postseason when everything slows down. The value of defense is increased and teams need to be able to produce in a half-court setting. One thing that Brett Brown has wisely done is attempt to focus on postseason play. With that being said, the Sixers have the personnel to run if they want. Ben Simmons is even built for an up-tempo offense so if you run through him and have shooters run with him, the Magic will be in for a long night.

You want Bully-Bully?

The Sixers can run and that’s great, they should, but there will be times where the Magic will slow down the game. When that happens, the Sixers will need to pivot to keep scoring. Short of Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, the Magic struggle against physicality. Nikola Vucevic, for instance, is not a prime post defender though talented in many other ways. Assuming Joel Embiid plays, he can out muscle Vucevic all day if he wanted to. Even Al Horford would be able to work the post against Vucevic. Force the ball inside in the half-court and you will tire the Magic or force them into foul trouble.

On the other side of the ball, if you play strong and physical against this Magic offense they will stall. Keep Vucevic out of the post and closeout when he shoots and you can essentially take him out of the game. The Sixers also need to keep close tabs on Evan Fournier also as he is the Magic’s prime offensive threat. If they can smother him of defense and force him into bad shots the Magic will then have no source of offense. The Sixers will need to designate an on-ball defender (probably Josh Richardson) to follow Fournier anywhere he goes to make sure he isn’t getting open looks.

The Sixers need to take away the mere thought that the Magic can win but at the same time, remember they can never underestimate an opponent. If the Sixers don’t impose their will from the jump, the Magic will have a chance to surprise them.

Prediction

Again, assuming Embiid plays, the Sixers will cruise to a win tonight. They will show off their embarrassment of riches and this game will be over before the fourth quarter begins. Orlando will struggle to score and the Sixers will bully their way to victory

FINAL SCORE: SIXERS 109 – MAGIC 92

Tip-off is at 7:00 PM EST with coverage beginning at 6:30. Watch on NBA TV or NBC Sports Philadelphia or listen live at 97.5 FM the Fanatic.

Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

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