Orlando 103, Sixers 101: Late Game Collapse Spoils Career Night From Joel Embiid

Embiid recorded his first double-double of his NBA career with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 assists, but the Sixers suffered another crushing late game collapse.

Joel Embiid chases down a loose ball late in the Sixers 103-101 loss to the Orlando Magic | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid chases down a loose ball late in the Sixers 103-101 loss to the Orlando Magic | Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Sixers ended tonight’s 103-101 loss to the Orlando Magic in fashion that is far too familiar for Sixers fans who have stuck through this rebuild: with an agonizing display of late game futility leading to a loss that never should have been.

The Sixers led for most of the night, jumping out to a 10-0 lead to start the game, a lead which then ballooned to 57-43 at the half. That’s a lead which should have been safe, even for the 76ers.

But Orlando chipped away, as NBA teams, even bad NBA teams, tend to do. They used a 22-13 run to start the second half and cut the lead to 5, eventually pulling even with 51 seconds left in the third and putting the Sixers in a place they’ve failed at so many times before: executing late in a close game.

Sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way. Quite literally, in the Sixers case tonight. After Robert Covington tipped a pass on Orlando’s final possession, Joel Embiid tried to dive on the loose ball with seconds remaining in a tied game, only for the ball to squirm away. The ball eventually found its way to a wide-open Serge Ibaka under the basket, leaving T.J. McConnell alone to foul Ibaka for the game winning free throws.

But it’s hard to complain about chance occurrences when you give up 41 points to the Orlando Magic in the third quarter, an offense that looked anemic through Orlando’s first three games en route to the league’s 27th ranked offense. For all the attention paid to the final minute of play — and it was bad, with two crushing turnovers on the Sixers final two possessions — giving up 41 to the Magic in the third is where this game swung in the visitors favor.

“Next time we have to come out of halftime, we have to be ready,” Embiid said after the game. “When we have a lead like that we just have to be ready to play and compete.”

Still, the Sixers were in position to close this one out, but once again found new and creative ways to fail down the stretch.

Joel Embiid found himself in the center of all of this. For the most part, he was spectacular, finishing with 18 points, 10 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 3 assists in his 25 minutes of action. His free throws with 1:38 remaining, as fans in attendance rained down chants of Trust the Process, put the Sixers up 4. Then his two turnovers in the final minute gave the Magic renewed life.

With 36 seconds remaining and the Sixers up two Embiid went to work down low, pulling off a nifty move to score, if not for the fact that he slid his feet and traveled in the process. After Evan Fournier tied the game seconds later head coach Brett Brown once again dialed Embiid’s number, this time putting him in a dribble handoff situation with Sergio Rodriguez on the perimeter.

Except the play never worked as planned, with Rodriguez’s defender, Elfrid Payton, working through a poor pick set by Embiid, turning the spacing into a “cluster mess”, as Brown called it after the game. The result of the play was yet another late game turnover that gave the Magic the ball with 5 seconds remaining in a tied game.

Despite the results, Sixers head coach Brett Brown wouldn’t change much.

“I’d do it again, trying to put (Embiid) in position to help us go get a win,” Brown said. “I want to play through Jo (Embiid), and I think that we got him touches. We got him the ball.”

For as many close losses as the Sixers have endured over the 2+ years since drafting Embiid with the third overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft, this one was different. Embiid went through this one as a player, as a central figure in both the promising play to build the lead and in its late game collapse, and it was clearly a difficult experience for the Sixers inexperienced franchise player to deal with.

Sitting at his locker stall after the game the typically jovial Embiid could barely muster more than one or two words in response to the inevitable questions about the late-game offensive execution. When the reporters walked away Embiid threw his hoodie on over his head, burying his head in the enormous hands that hold the fate of the Sixers franchise going forward.

Still, the NBA forces the Sixers to forget about this one, with a game in Charlotte less than 24 hours away. Given enough time, the key takeaways from tonight’s game will be Embiid’s dominance, or Dario Saric‘s 21 points in 9-15 shooting. It’s easy to talk yourself into that, because there’s more than a sliver of truth to it.

“I think it’s very good, and at times it’s dominating,” Brown said about Embiid’s defense. “He does stuff that we all just want to go give him a big hug. He’s very, very special to our organization.”

That’s all true. Embiid controlled the game in the first half, altering any Orlando shot in the paint, dissuading guards from even attempting to shoot down low, while switching out onto perimeter players he had no business being able to stay in front of. The potential Embiid has, on both ends of the court, is enormous.

But even so, it doesn’t take any of the sting away from the here and now. This was a game the Sixers should have won.

Odds and Ends

  • Had it not been for the late game collapse, Dario Saric’s 21 points (9-15 shooting, 3-4 from three) would have been the story of the night. After shooting just 19 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from three-point range over the Sixers first two games, Saric really gave the Sixers a boost. Making perimeter shots opens things up tremendously for Saric and the Sixers.
  • Saric was anything but alone in the Sixers perimeter attack, with Gerald Henderson (18 points, 7-13 shooting) and Hollis Thompson (22 points, 8-10 shooting, 4-4 from three) giving the Sixers a huge lift from a perimeter attack that had otherwise struggled so far this year.
  • Sergio Rodriguez finished the night with 12 points (5-11 shooting, 2-5 from three) and 11 assists, notching his first double-double of the season and just the second of his NBA career. His last double-double came on April 15th, 2009 for the Portland Trailblazers.
  • Regardless of what the Sixers were trying to do, putting Joel Embiid in a decision making situation 20 feet from the basket and the clock winding down is a difficult position to put a big man in, especially one who is so young in his basketball development. The Sixers lack of perimeter shot creators comes into play here, but that was a tough spot for Embiid.

Next up: at Charlotte, tomorrow night at 7 PM on Comcast SportsNet.

Derek Bodner covers the 76ers for Philadelphia magazine’s Sixers Post. Follow @DerekBodnerNBA on Twitter.