Embiid warming up

The Sixers (34-23) visited the Milwaukee Bucks (36-23) on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a 48-point drubbing at the hands of the Boston Celtics on Tuesday. Milwaukee wanted to build on a victory over the Pacers on Tuesday. Embiid racked up 42 points, 14 boards, and 5 assists to send the Sixers into the All-Star break with a 123-120 win. 

Before we get to what I saw, let’s do some house-keeping.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who is recovering from a left hamstring injury.

Jaden Springer was out with a sore left knee. Myles Powell (Two-Way) was on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Georges Niang, and Joel Embiid.

The Bucks were without DeAndre’ Bembry and Pat Connaughton, who were out with a sore left thumb and recovery from right hand surgery, respectively. 

George Hill was out with a sore neck. Brook Lopez continued to be unavailable due to back surgery. Grayson Allen was out with a sore left hip.

Mike Budenholzer started Jrue Holiday, Jordan Nwora, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Bobby Portis

First Quarter

I don’t love the Sixers blitzing pick-and-rolls with Giannis Antetokounmpo serving as the screener, especially in a world where both Tobias Harris and Georges Niang are starting. Middleton is a secondary ball-handler with size, so if you’re blitzing him, he can make passes over the blitz. Meanwhile, Giannis is plenty adequate as a playmaker if he catches the ball on a short roll in the middle of the lane. That’s problematic in itself. But, adding the lack of speed between Harris and Niang to the mix also leaves the defense’s recovery time vulnerable.

What Harris didn’t bring in speed, he made up with aggression on offense in the first quarter. Harris poured in 10 points on 9 shots in the first frame, nearly doubling his point total from the Boston game in just 12 minutes of play. Most encouraging was the way in which Harris scored a handful of those buckets. He got to the rim a number of times against the bigger Bucks, showcasing footwork that he usually lacks. Even if Milwaukee was able to deter Harris’ drive, he pivoted to create space by way of counter-moves.

Paul Millsap, who Wikipedia insists is 37 years old, looked quite active against the athletic Bucks. He started with a volleyball spike on a block that was negated due to a late foul call. Millsap also beat Bobby Portis with a post move and converted an alley-oop on a window limited by time and pass height. The strategy for any non-Embiid lineup should be to space the floor so that ball-handlers can drive and slashers can attack close-outs.

In the Embiid era, Mike Muscala is the only stretch big the Sixers have had. All of the other designated backups have been rim-runners. Given the skillsets of the guards, especially Maxey, the Sixers should be looking to decongest those driving lanes to encourage dribble penetration. Because of that, Millsap should get a real chance to be the backup center going forward. All signs point to the Sixers canvassing the buyout market for a big man, but I would certainly go the route of credible 3-and-D wings with that final roster spot.

Second Quarter

Speaking of credible 3-and-D wings, the Sixers’ such players were neither 3’ing nor D’ing in the first half. The Sixers aren’t exactly a heliocentric offense, but their product is contingent upon mostly-stationary shooters not going through prolonged cold stretches. It was a freezing 1.33 games for the Sixers’ supporting cast.

That will happen because perimeter shooting is inherently disadvantageous and, thus, streaky. But, it was especially problematic against the Bucks’ defense on Thursday. Milwaukee’s size and athleticism allowed for effective hard-doubling when Embiid caught the rock. And as he’s done all season long, he opted to trust his teammates instead of forcing unnecessary shots. But if he’s going to do that — and his teammates aren’t going to oblige by making the defense pay — you have yourself a propeller stuck in seaweed. Your boat ain’t goin’ anywhere. Fortunately for the Sixers, those hard double-teams will be fewer and further between when Harden starts playing.

It wasn’t until Tyrese Maxey started cooking that the Sixers’ offense started to show a pulse. After scoring just 2 points in the opening frame, Maxey poured in 14 in the second frame. 7 of that 14, by the way, came at the free throw line. Maxey was admirably assertive in his constant pressure on the rim, going right at the teeth of Milwaukee’s intimidating interior to covert crafty finishes and fend off occasional contact along the way. The Sixers trailed by as many as 12 points in the second quarter, and Maxey’s onslaught woke Embiid up, too. He started drilling his own barrage of jumpers to draw some of the weight off of Maxey’s shoulders.

I will take this opportunity to pat the Sixers on the back for getting somewhat creative as they cooked in the second quarter. When Milwaukee resumed the hard-doubling on Embiid, he and Maxey ran an inverted pick-and-pop to get Maxey alone at the top of the key. Embiid obliged, giving Maxey the ball with a vacant runway right in front of him. Even if the interior corrects to take away the rim, that driving angle creates a path to another pass. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s ball movement.

Third Quarter

The Sixers opened the third quarter with Furkan Korkmaz starting in place of Matisse Thybulle. That seems extremely counter-intuitive, given what he can do in passing lanes. And perhaps it is counter-intuitive in most cases. Korkmaz has suffered through a mostly dreadful season. But perhaps for just one night, Rivers pulled the right card. The Bucks started the quarter frigid, and Korkmaz started the frame with a pair of threes. Philly pushed its lead to 15 points. A 27-point swing in roughly 10 minutes of game time.

Perhaps the Sixers could’ve pushed their lead beyond 15 points had Rivers adjusted away from the lack of athleticism on the wings before the house money expired. No sooner did Philly reach its zenith than did the Bucks start their comeback. Much of it came courtesy of ball-swings to Niang’s side of the court. His lack of foot speed in recovering from the paint (to reinforce the glass) to the perimeter (when there were kick-outs instead of shots at the rim) allowed Milwaukee to dial up wide-open triples from the likes of Middleton to get back into the game.

Fortunately for the Sixers, Embiid was there to keep the separation with an array of absurd shots. He even channeled his inner James Harden, picking up his patented step-back in less than a week of practice time as if by osmosis:

Fourth Quarter

With the Sixers up by 7 points, Rivers opened the final frame with the all-bench lineup. And of course, the Bucks came storming back once again. It’s fine to let that all-bench lineup roll for a minute to 90 seconds. Against a team like the Bucks, you need to have your primaries at the front of the bench when the quarter starts. But Rivers stuck with his rotations, even with Milwaukee’s momentum surging.

But just as he’s done all season, Embiid provided a remedy when his team desperately needed scores. He made gargantuan shots down the stretch, sizing up the man in his way and re-calibrating his touch to get shots to drop from all distances and angles. The one thing I will say is that his free throw shooting is slightly concerning. He hasn’t been himself form the charity stripe for a couple of weeks. I wonder if the wrist is bothering him, as he’s warn variations of coverings to protect it over the last few games. 

I understand Thybulle is severely limited on the offensive end, and he’s looked completely out of sorts over the last two games. But, I have no idea how he only played 15 minutes in this game. Foul trouble wasn’t a factor — he only committed 1. 

As limited as he is athletically, Georges Niang certainly deserves his flowers for his finale before the All-Star break. Aside from hitting 5 triples, he bodied up with Giannis for the better part of his 40 minutes tonight. You would think that matchup is fresh food for the two-time MVP, but Niang hunkered down and put body mass on him all night long. It was perhaps his best game as a Sixer, and they needed every second of it. I will give Rivers credit for that — he strayed away from his predictable recipe and added a little bit of spice to it, and it worked.

It’s rare that both teams put forth a product worthy of the price of admission, but the Sixers and Bucks certainly treated their viewers to a show in this game. Back and forth all night long, two great players going punch for punch, and big plays down the stretch. Couldn’t ask for a better showing before All-Star weekend.

But, Tony Brothers. Good grief. Phantom fouls, calling jump-balls when Giannis is grabbing Korkmaz by the wrist. Every time he’s involved, there’s a costly whistle or lack there of. I would plead for him to get it together, but who am I kidding, that will never happen.

The Sixers head into the All-Star break at 35-23. They will resume their season in Minnesota against the Timberwolves (31-28) on Friday, February 25, at 8 PM EST. That is thought to be James Harden’s debut, although there has been no concrete indication when the first game will be. Regardless, you can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.