The Philadelphia 76ers' impressive 74-69 win over Dwight Howard and the reeling Orlando Magic did not have many highlight moments on the offensive end. The team free throw percentages for the Sixers and Magic -- 52.6 and 45.5 percent, respectively -- would have looked much better as field goal percentages, while the team field goal percentages -- 37.5 percent for Philly and 33.3 percent for Orlando -- might have passed for decent three-point efficiency on a normal night. Tony Battie and Evan Turner survived as the only two players in the entire contest to make more than half their shots, but they only combined for 20 points on the night. In other words, defense was the story of the game.
It's difficult to think the Sixers are still sneaking up on people, considering they boast the best defensive efficiency rating and top efficiency differential in the NBA, but their style of play is certainly unorthodox and remained so on Monday night. Without a true defensive presence on the interior and with Spencer Hawes out due to a left achilles strain, head coach Doug Collins employed a combination of Elton Brand, Tony Battie and Lavoy Allen to hold Dwight Howard to just 17 points on 17 shots. Brand only scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds, but he turned in a particularly good performance on defense. Using his lower center of gravity to get under Howard and deny premium post position, Brand made things difficult for the Magic and recorded four blocks while protecting the paint well.
Speaking of the paint, Philadelphia has somehow managed to play consistently good basketball while taking a league-low 23.3 percent of their shots within three feet of the rim. They scored just 16 points in the paint on the night -- compared to Orlando's 34 -- but managed to get good mid-range shots by moving the ball and making the extra pass. With 22 assists on 30 made shots, Philly did just enough to keep their offense creeping along steadily throughout the night.
The Magic failed to keep pace, largely due one terrible quarter of offense. With starting point guard Jameer Nelson out due to concussion-like symptoms, Orlando committed more turnovers (14) than they dished out assists (11) on the night and completely fell apart in the third quarter. The team missed 14 of 17 field goal attempts in the period on their way to a 9-point quarter that helped push the Sixers' advantage to 58-42 entering the fourth. As Philly set a new opponent low for scoring in a single quarter this season, Dwight Howard showed some fire by scoring 8 those 9 points.
In fact, the Magic showed their own competitive fire and almost made an improbably comeback late in the game when the Sixers took their foot off the gas. With an 18-point lead and just 2:51 remaining, the home team dropped their defensive intensity and hit just 5-10 free throws during the chase-and-foul portion of the final minute, thus allowing Orlando to make the game score look more respectable at 74-69. However, don't get fooled into thinking the Magic turned the corner in this loss.
Monday's defeat fits comfortably into the recent trend of terrible play from Howard's squad. Orlando's fourth consecutive loss put them at a still respectable 12-9 overall, but in the last week they have: (1) set franchise record lows for field goal percentage, fewest points scored in a game and fewest made field goals in a game during an 87-56 loss to the Celtics, (2) blew a 27-point lead in another loss to the Celtics, and (3) dropped a complete turd of a performance in a 93-67 road loss to the 4-15 New Orleans Hornets. This clunker against the Sixers won't do anything to slow down the runaway Dwight Howard rumor train.
Only two players in the game salvaged quality statistics: Andre Iguodala and Ryan Anderson. Iggy played his usual disruptive perimeter defense and added 14 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals to boot. On the other side, Magic forward Ryan Anderson plunked down 14 points on 6-13 shooting and grabbed 20 rebounds (11 on the offensive glass). The 76ers are now 15-6 on the season and keep finding ways to win games, but Doug Collins continues to guard against complacency. Consider this interesting anecdote from the game recap on SB Nation's Sixers blog, Liberty Ballers, for confirmation:
After allowing 18 points in the first 21 minutes of the second half, the Sixers gave up 18 points in the last 3. When Doug Collins is caught yelling expletives at Evan Turner at the end of the game, who in turn threw a towel down the Wells Fargo Center halls, things aren't entirely rosy, even after a win.