The Sixers (40-22) visited the Milwaukee Bucks (45-17) in prime time on Saturday night. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from Thursday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks. Milwaukee wanted to extend its winning streak to 17 games. Joel Embiid and James Harden combined for 69 points and 20 assists to power the Sixers to a comeback victory over the Bucks, 133-130.
Before we get to the game, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Mac McClung and Louis King are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
The Bucks were without the services of Wesley Matthews, who has a strained right calf.
Mike Budenholzer started Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, Pat Connaughton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez.
The Embiid that suited up on Thursday in Dallas was not the same guy who donned white on Saturday. Embiid looked completely disinterested in defending anything once it became clear that his teammates had no chance of putting out the fire that Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving started.
But, he made it clear that he understood the gravity of Saturday’s matchup in Milwaukee. Embiid didn’t marry himself to the rim at the expense of leaving Lopez, Portis, and other blue-jerseyed shooters open. He made honest contests on the perimeter; sometimes too close to get into the shooter’s head, sometimes in just enough time to be noticed and alter the shot.
Beyond that, Embiid stayed engaged in plays even after denying the initial penetration. There were times in which Holiday tried to nash around the basket — attack the rim, go under the basket, come out the other side, and turn around to catch the rim-protector off guard or a teammate diving on a cut. Embiid was there to close the window, anticipating that Holiday would turn around and forcing him to dribble back out to the perimeter to reset the possession.
As the game progressed, Embiid’s responsibility on defense only expanded. He took on Antetokounmpo for the majority of minutes after Harris and Tucker departed from the game (more on that later). There were Milwaukee possessions in which Paul Reed would try to hold strong against the rangy Bucks star, but the likes of Jalen McDaniels was there to shade in help to to tease what would happen if Antetokounmpo tried to attack.
When the chips were down and it came time to exchange punches in the fourth quarter, it was The Process, himself, who took matters into his own hands against Antetokounmpo. The reality is that Embiid lost a handful of those individual matchups with Giannis. When the whistles let him get away with offensive fouls and walks on a sizable portion of his attacks, there’s not a whole lot you can do sometimes. Antetokounmpo does deserve credit for his relentlessness.
He has the energy and motor of someone who chugged a six-can mix of Red Bull and Monster before coming out for warmups. He never stops coming at you, whether it be the first attack or the second. But, Embiid swarmed him and denied Antetokounmpo the ability to establish his feet inside on a couple of crucial possessions in the game’s final two minutes. One possession ended in Giannis missing long around the rim. The other ended in Antetokounmpo traveling to ice the game for all intents and purposes.
Philadelphia will absolutely need Embiid to take ownership of one-on-one matchups outside of the paint if the Sixers are going to have a chance of advancing beyond the second round. Saturday was a step in the right direction for Embiid’s intensity on defense and towards proving that he can handle defending outside of drop coverage.
On the offensive side, it wasn’t the most dominant 31 points Embiid has ever scored. That much is certain. He struggled from the free throw line; he struggled to get to the free throw line for large portions of the game, at that. You’re certainly not alone if you felt like Embiid settled for too many jumpers instead of fighting with Lopez and other blue jerseys to get inside. But, it was far from Embiid’s worst night of shooting. Not every jumper fell, but he had touch from his usual spots. But, I would’ve liked to see him take the temperature of the game and demand more from himself as his team searched for someone to control the game.
We know Embiid can do it for months at a time during the regular season. But, he can afford to coast more against the Charlotte Hornets of the league if he’s the best player on the court in games against the NBA’s best teams. If Embiid wants to win MVP, he’s going to have to apply himself and put his foot on the gas when the adversity is most significant. It’s not about doing it when it’s easy; the last man standing gets it done when it’s difficult. Ultimately, he did come through for the Sixers in the clutch, burying the three that gave Philadelphia the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
Embiid’s biggest imprint on offense was his passing. Perhaps he couldn’t always get it going against Lopez or Antetokounmpo. No problem, Embiid was equal parts patient and decisive with the ball. If he didn’t like what was there, Embiid pivoted into the next look, toggling the likes of Maxey or Harris into DHOs to attack downhill or beat a defender going under the screen for a three. He also plugged the open man in transition and surveyed the floor, leveraging his own gravity to create open threes for others. Only one turnover on the night for the big guy; an excellent display of playmaking.
I noticed a few moments in the first half in which Harden was stone-walled as part of a bench lineup. That was a stretch during which Philadelphia struggled to produce offense. Milwaukee’s switching, size, and mobility bothered the team’s offensive catalyst. But, beyond that stretch of missed jumpers in no man’s land, Harden was simply fabulous. He paid tribute to his younger self on the NBA’s most grand regular-season stage.
The Beard’s usual passing was on display. But, his shooting and scoring was sensational. He didn’t look at being several steps beyond the arc as a problem. In fact, it was shame on his defender for not respecting him. He nailed a couple of deep ones from near the top of the key. Harden danced with Giannis, drilling a stepback in his eye. And if the Bucks dared go under on ball screens, it was Milwaukee’s funeral.
But, the shooting doesn’t tell the whole story. Harden felt his body could go up against anyone the Bucks threw at him, and he showed it with his aggression every time the ball came his way. He dusted blue jerseys off the dribble all night long, creating chaos for Milwaukee as he broke the paint for shots at the rim. The star guard who most wrote off after last season absolutely toyed with the best defensive team in the NBA, leading the way for his Philadelphia comrades in a critical test of just how good the Sixers are.
Maxey has looked like a different player since being re-inserted into the starting lineup. It’s only been two games, but it’s been a world of difference for the Sixers’ offense. As it would turn out (OK, I’m being sarcastic, I’ve written it multiple times recently), involving the young guard in your actions gets him going. Embiid turned to Maxey early in the game, putting the ball in his hands on a DHO that got no. 0 a floater in the paint.
The Sixers treated Maxey like a legitimate weapon when he was on the court with the two best players instead of using him as just another cog to get the ball back to Embiid and Harden. Maxey dialed up a pair of catch-and-shoot threes and stuck a stepback midrange jumper in the third quarter. But, most of his work came at the rim or getting downhill for floaters. The Sixers curled him around screens or looked his way with swing passes while the Bucks were in rotation, giving him touches with simple decisions to make. And the best Maxey fuel of all, transition touches. They forwarded the rock to him on run-outs, taking advantage of his speed to get quick scores while the Bucks scrambled.
He wasn’t involved much in the fourth quarter. But, Philadelphia put Maxey in great spots to succeed. He was the proverbial third star the Sixers needed to win this game.
In the minutes Tucker did play in this game, he was quite solid on defense. We saw him stand tough against Antetokounmpo when these teams faced off in November. Tucker was critical to the Sixers winning that one. While he wasn’t available for much of the game, Tucker did a fine job walling off the relentless Bucks star. There were Bucks possessions in which the ball went to Giannis in the post and Tucker had to stretch his legs into the restricted area to dig in and keep no. 34 at bay. He didn’t win every battle, but Giannis couldn’t just overwhelm him inside. Tucker also got his hands on a couple of difficult defensive rebounds, honestly boxing out Bucks around him and fighting to secure the board.
I don’t know what was important — Niang seeing a couple threes going in, or Niang hitting a couple of threes in this game. Sounds similar, but two totally different points. It was a brutal shooting slump for the Sixers reserve shooter. But, he broke out in a big way. Niang canned five of his six looks from deep, four of which came in the final quarter when Philadelphia mounted its comeback. He also provided some body mass against Milwaukee’s size when the Bucks got the ball inside the arc.
The ‘Likes’ section cannot be complete without some praise for Paul Reed and Jalen McDaniels. A two-man effort to slow down Giannis was admirable and occasionally successful, even though the guy known as the Greek Freak is going to win that or get fouled trying. Reed also blocked one of Giannis’ shots in the fourth quarter. The most important thing Reed did was corral a handful of offensive rebounds, breeding second-chance opportunities for Philadelphia. He also converted a difficult and-1 through multiple Bucks to inject life into the Sixers early in the fourth quarter. Philadelphia was plus-8 against arguably the best team in the NBA in those minutes Reed was in the game and Embiid was resting. Enormous.
McDaniels, on the other hand, knocked down a triple towards the end of the third quarter to cut the deficit to 12 points. He sunk three free throws late in the fourth quarter to draw the Sixers to within one point of tying the game. McDaniels also snuck in on for a weak-side offensive rebound and putback dunk off a missed Embiid jumper to bring the Sixers to within two points in the game’s final two minutes. McDaniels has the size and athleticism to be accidentally good or truly good on defense. If Rivers feels he can trust him in the playoffs, that’s a huge marginal victory at the trade deadline. Saturday was a step towards building that equity.
Embiid spent a significant portion of this game moping around. He didn’t look excited or all that interested in the game. In fact, he looked down and almost as if he hoped someone would step up to save the day for the Sixers. He’s the best player. People around the team always praise his growth as a leader. Embiid has to set the tone, and that’s something we say all the time in these columns. He wasn’t that guy on Saturday.
If Embiid wants to reach the next level of the playoffs, he has to understand that he has to send a message — both on and off the court. Head high, stop looking defeated and down. Refuse to let the adversity deny you what you want. Something doesn’t go your way, come back harder next time. That’s what all great champions have to do to reach the pinnacle of the game.
My expectations for Maxey’s defense are quite low to begin with. But, my goodness, Holiday took him to the woodshed in the first half. The former Sixers guard scored 15 points on eight field goal attempts before halftime. At one point, it felt like he was matching each Sixers basket with a bucket of his own, and perhaps the foul to go along with it. He worked Maxey in the post. Maxey didn’t really struggle staying in front of him faced up on an island. The problems came from Holiday applying his body weight to Maxey and forcing his way into the paint. Certainly wasn’t pretty.
The only true distance in this game came in what has become the dreaded third quarter for Philadelphia. Allen, the polarizing Duke product, was silent before halftime. He came out like a gang-buster in the third quarter. Philadelphia lost him all quarter, surrendering open triples to the tune of 20 points for Milwaukee’s sniper. It wasn’t anything complicated, either. Just the same issues that have plagued the Sixers for most of the season when their defense has been bad.
Over-helping, poor communication on the back side when help comes, transition urgency. Granted, Allen stuck one ridiculously deep three on a heat check in transition. It wasn’t like he was wide open on an easy shot toeing the line. But, Philadelphia was late to close out or rotate to pick him up all quarter long. Eventually, other Bucks got in on the party. Lopez and Holiday both sunk a couple back-breaking threes in the second half. Philadelphia was fortunate it didn’t matter in this game. But, the three-point defense against good teams is a real problem. Opposing offenses are never more than a few passes away from a target practice look from deep. They’re not shots resulting from tricky actions, either. It’s drive-and-kick and pick-and-roll rotation. They just cannot seem to figure it out.
Harris left the game very early with left calf soreness and did not return. Tucker left the game in the third quarter with back spasms and did not return. We’ll know more in the coming days. But, certainly not an ideal stretch of competition to be without two starters.
The Sixers (41-22) will visit the Indiana Pacers (28-36) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.