The Sixers hosted the Bucks (both 46-28) on Tuesday night. Both teams hoped to right their wrongs from losses in their previous games. An incredible block by Giannis Antetokounmpo in the final seconds of the game left Philadelphia short a victory, 118-116.
Before we get to what I saw, some context is due.
Milwaukee was without DeAndre’ Bembry, who is out after undergoing surgery on his right knee.
Mike Budenholzer started Jrue Holiday, Wesley Matthews, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez.
Philadelphia was without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, and Myles Powell (Two-Way), who were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats. Springer is also nursing a sore left groin.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
Matisse Thybulle was extremely effective early in this one. On Milwaukee’s first possession of the game, Thybulle deflected a pass towards Joel Embiid to ignite a fastbreak chance. Just a few Milwaukee possessions later, Thybulle got his fingers on a Jrue Holiday baseline jumper, rendering it short.
Thybulle isn’t exactly a consistently effective defender, even if the effort and intent are always there. But, I will give him this — he’s consistently up for the task against marquee matchups. He rendered Steph Curry useless and created chaos in the passing lanes against the Nuggets, amongst other examples this season. At the end of the day, if he can consistently be the best version of himself on the defensive side of the ball when the games are all precious in April, May, and June, then the Sixers will forgive his erratic tendencies from the regular season.
After being hesitant and mostly a non-factor in the second half of Sunday’s loss to the Suns, James Harden came out with his mind made up early on Tuesday. He got to the basket for a finish through a foul, kissed a short floater off the glass for a bucket, and then leveraged some burst to get inside for a difficult layup through traffic.
The burst is the most refreshing part of those 3 plays. Harden has been noticeably slow at times in his Sixers tenure, either neglecting drives entirely or tossing weak shots at the rim once he got there. The difference, in large part, was Harden’s mentality. There was no playing to the contact or waiting for the whistle to sound. He used his strength and ball-handling skills to get to the rim. If the contact came, so be it.
The early success carried Harden, who carried a mostly-sleeping Sixers team back from the dead and through a competitive first quarter. He even drained a step-back triple, plus a foul, over Giannis Antetokounmpo, bringing the Sixers to within a bucket after trailing by as many as 10 points in the first quarter and sending a jolt of energy through the building.
I won’t say that Doc Rivers listened to me or even read my recent column on DeAndre Jordan being ill-equipped to suit the Sixers’ needs. But, I will say I’m available for consultations for a small fee (at least $90K in salary, please and thank you). All jokes aside, Rivers seemingly conceded that Jordan wasn’t cutting it, giving Paul Millsap the backup center minutes in the first half of this game.
Going with Millsap is fine, at minimum, because it isn’t going with Jordan. He gives you a 5-out look, which opens the driving lanes for Harden, Maxey, or whomever Millsap is playing with. The downside is that you’re forfeiting size in the interior on defense, which will hurt you against big, athletic teams like the Bucks. But, you’re just looking to win the non-Embiid minutes. Beggars can’t choose the way in which they win those minutes.
Lost in Tyrese Maxey’s glow-up this season is that he’s sneakily found ways to take on multiple defenders and finish over them in transition. The speedster that he is, Maxey can’t just go right at their chests as the only man back in transition because the only play is to stop the ball. So, he shies away from contact ever so slightly and angles his drives so that he can get to one side of the basket for his finish. He somehow finished a transition layup at an absurd angle against 2 much bigger Milwaukee defenders.
I don’t really know what the art behind that is. But he found the perfect path to the rim, knifing into the lane to get close enough for a layup while simultaneously discovering just the right corner of the backboard off of which he could kiss the basketball for a lay in. He didn’t dangle it. He didn’t go too fast. Maxey just used his speed to create an interior advantage and then found the smallest possible window through which he could throw the ball and off which he could still get an unperturbed shot.
I’ve written this before, but the next evolution of Maxey’s repertoire is understanding when to hit the speed boost to create advantages for himself. Right now, he plays at one speed. Always playing at 100 miles per hour sometimes causes him to lose control and miss difficult shots badly or leave loose change on attempts that he usually makes. Manipulating the game with shifting speeds is next to come, and it will mitigate those out-of-control moments
Don’t look now, but Tobias Harris is starting to figure out his role within this offense. He launched 4 threes in the first half, connecting on a pair of them. There are still moments when his intuition is to pump-fake and jab-step. He even did that before loading up and hitting a three in the first half. But, Harris is increasingly confident off the catch. The offense isn’t slowing down with him aimlessly putting the ball on the deck every time he catches a pass anymore. And perhaps as important, he’s starting to understand how to relocate off the ball. He missed a shot in the second quarter and then relocated off the offensive rebound and received a second chance, draining a three from the right wing.
Battling a horrific shooting slump, Georges Niang stepped up to knock in a pair of threes under duress in the fourth quarter. He kept the Sixers afloat as the Bucks took control in the fourth quarter.
As great as Harden was in the first half, the one thing I would like to see less of is his tendency to whip passes to teammates right when the shot clock is about to expire. It’s not like he creates drastically better looks for his teammates when he does it, either. Harden puts forth a dribbling display until he realizes he can’t crack his defender himself. Then, he knifes into the lane to draw a helper out an extra step before kicking to a teammate at the end of the shot clock.
Tyrese Maxey, for example, was dealt a grenade very early in the game and had no choice but to launch a quick three from the corner. Maxey’s three-point shooting from the corner has been excellent as this season has progressed. So, tossing him a time bomb in the corner isn’t the worst shot in the world. But, it’s still not a particularly favorable situation to be in.
After ESPN’s latest MVP Straw Poll results generated outrage amongst Sixers fans on the internet on Tuesday morning, Embiid didn’t exactly put forth an inspiring effort early in this one. In fact, it appeared he ripped a page from Harden’s book of struggles. Embiid was settling for contested jumpers and letting the officials hear it when the whistles didn’t come. He’s going to get his fair share of whistles as is, there’s no need to play to the whistle and then voice displeasure towards officials when the foul trends toward being minor anyway.
Those are the times in which you’d like the Sixers to call one of their cross screen actions to get Embiid a touch on the block. Obviously, the only reason Embiid is forced to play as far out as he is at times is because of the double-teams defenses throw his way. But posting at the block, even in congestion, affords Embiid an opportunity to pivot directly into a high-quality shot. Even if the contact is there, it won’t be a cheap foul bailing out a jump-shooter. It’ll be akin to the fouls he gets all the time.
The only thing bad thing Harris did in the first half, in my eyes, was pass out of a shot at the rim after attacking a Jrue Holiday close-out baseline. Maxey is so dynamic that he can make something out of nothing more often than not. But, that’s an opportunity for Harris to use his own mass and size to bully his way into a decent angle by the basket for a layup. Any layup you can get is a great shot when you’re not at a point in the game where you need a three to stay alive.
Georges Niang, who has been marred in a horrific shooting slump lately, tried a behind-the-back crossover against Giannis Antetokounmpo and went down face-first as he fumbled the move. Earlier in the season, Niang joked that he wasn’t here to look cute dribbling the basketball. Well, he certainly looks better shooting the ball. I’ll leave it at that.
Fans are always going to be furious about something as they lick their wounds in defeat. On Tuesday, it was the final look Philadelphia got out of its last timeout. It was a step-back three in isolation. I would’ve opted for something going downhill with the Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll game. Ultimately, you put the ball in the hands of your best 1-2 players and live with the results. Some days, you make that shot. Other days, you don’t. And the Sixers didn’t on Tuesday.
When the league goes to meetings about affecting change this offseason, let’s fire those jump-ball rulings on questionable plays into the sun. Giannis’ block to clinch the win was incredible, but the loose ball went out of bounds off of Milwaukee. It should’ve been a sideline-out-of-bounds possession for the Sixers after the review. Not a jump-ball at center court.
The Sixers (46-29) will visit the Detroit Pistons (20-55) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.