The Sixers (0-1) hosted the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night. Milwaukee wanted to open its season with a road victory. Philadelphia wanted to kick off its home slate with a victory after losing the season-opener to the Celtics in Boston. James Harden scored 31 points, but another brutal Embiid game held the Sixers back in a 90-88 loss.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
Khris Middleton was out as he recovers from ligament surgery on his left wrist.
Pat Connaughton was out with a right calf strain. Joe Ingles is recovering from surgery on his left ACL and was unavailable.
Mike Budenholzer started Jevon Carter, Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez.
All Sixers were available for this game.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Lopez isn’t exactly like the interior defenders or helpers that the Celtics have. But, he’s become a much better defender as his career has progressed. As such, Embiid responded well when put on an island with Lopez on the second possession of the game. He squared up, recognized that he had space to operate, and went right at Lopez. He even absorbed some initial contact from his positional counterpart, but took it in stride and finished through a foul. Given that he lacked physicality and engagement on opening night, it was a nice response early in the game.
Maxey didn’t have much success due to the physical deficits with which he operates on the defensive end of the floor, but he gave a commendable effort getting to shooters in the first quarter. He was late getting around screens because he just doesn’t have the size to fight through them in a timely fashion. But rather than give up on the play and leave it to a teammate to pick up his slack, Maxey made every effort to get back into the picture.
Most of the time, he was too late. But, the simple habit of effort will eventually help him make some of those plays. The defensive effort didn’t stop there. Maxey offered as much physical resistance as he could when ball-handlers tried to drive around him on swing passes. He beat numerous Bucks to spots on the floor, forcing them to turn around and redirect their drives. He didn’t give way there, though. Maxey continued to wall off to stop his man from getting deep dribble penetration on the Sixers. You’ll take process over results when developing a facet of your game, and Maxey’s processes were good on the defensive side in the first frame.
Embiid was much quicker to get back on offense in transition in the first half of this game than he was against Boston. He got out in front of his teammates and aggressively fought for interior positioning in the post, sealing off his counterpart and extending his arm to receive the ball. To his teammates’ credits, they looked ahead and tried to find angles to feed him for shots up close. Of course, the Bucks are a particularly physical and athletic bunch. So, not every transition look yielded points for Embiid. But, the strategy was good by the four on the floor. And Embiid made legitimate efforts to get the advantage and seal off the interior.
Harden absolutely took over this game in the fourth quarter to lead a 13-point turnaround for the home team. Much of the turnaround resulted from heightened defense that accompanied Rivers’ decision to go with a small-ball lineup when the game was slipping away. Tucker served as the five, and Harden splashed midrange after midrange jumper. And when the fans applied some energy, the Sixers started to get out and run. It was the second time in two games that Harden led the charge, and against an elite defensive group, no less. Much of the offensive success in the second half came from Harden-run pick-and-rolls. He didn’t force anything, rather he took what the defense gave him. Harden put forth his second consecutive 30-point effort on high efficiency by working his way within the arc and creating space for stepback jumpers.
If you’re the Sixers, you have to be grinning from ear to ear over Harden’s early showing. 33 points, 8 rebounds, and an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.2:1. If that continues, look out.
The Bucks got pretty much anything they wanted on corner threes and shots in the middle of the floor. The Sixers were late to switches a few times, leaving various Buck shooters open to rip from the top of the key and wings. It’s going to take some time to get their switching rules down pat, but the Sixers are hemorrhaging open shots on the perimeter right now. Been ugly thus far.
The Sixers wouldn’t have needed until the midway point of the third quarter to take the lead had they made even the most conservative effort to keep track of Brook Lopez. Given that he wasn’t blessed with speed, it shouldn’t be that difficult to contain a guy who doesn’t offer much variety in his offensive tendencies. Nonetheless, the Sixers got lost switching his ball screens. He was able to pop out immediately and load up open threes as the Sixers watched. Even if he didn’t directly pop, he was diving through the lane and curling out to a wing for wide-open looks. I can understand losing a shooter on occasion. But, the Sixers lost Lopez all night and let him step into practice-level jumpers. Trying to figure out a new scheme with new personnel or not, that’s unacceptable.
I didn’t like the late-game playcall to get Embiid an isolated elbow jumpers against Lopez instead of going to the Harden pick-and-roll, which carried the Sixers back into the game. Embiid shot 6-for-21 in the game, and that wasn’t one of the six makes when the Sixers desperately needed one to go down. Also, Maxey is talked about as if he’s a third star. Treat him like it in crunch time. He shouldn’t be stuffed off to the side, completely uninvolved in the action.
The Sixers (0-2) will host the San Antonio Spurs (0-1) on Saturday night. Tip-off is set for 6 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBA TV.