Shake Milton looks to improve and increase his role on the 76ers this season. Photo by Wayne Terry, TPL.

The Philadelphia 76ers (39-20) were back in action against the Milwaukee Bucks (36-22) on Saturday afternoon. It was the second leg of a two-game road series against the Bucks. The Sixers were looking to get back on track after dropping the first game of the series, and snap a three-game losing streak that dropped them out of first place in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks, on the other hand, were looking to win their second game in a row and make even more ground towards the second seed in the East. Milwaukee’s bench pumped in 76 points to send Philadelphia to a fourth consecutive loss, 132-94.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Ben Simmons, who remained out with what Doc Rivers has said is the flu. Before the game, Rivers said that Simmons was feeling better–not great–and getting stronger. He would not provide a timeline for the All-Star to return. Joel Embiid was deemed a late scratch with right shoulder soreness after appearing to have jammed it during a play in the first game of the series. Philly was also without Paul Reed, who was put into the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Rivers started George Hill, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Mike Scott. 

Everyone was available for the Bucks. Mike Budenholzer started Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez.

First Half

The Sixers opened the game with a pull-up triple from Tobias Harris, making the score 3-0. That was an excellent contrast to Thursday’s game, which the Bucks opened with a 10-0 run.

Lacking a credible option to guard Giannis in the half-court with both Embiid and Simmons out, the Sixers opened the game in a zone. The zone typically mitigates dribble penetration, which is exactly what you want to do against a player like Giannis. The problem then becomes allowing three-point looks. If you don’t close with agility, timeliness, and light feet, you’re giving up wide-open triples or getting attacked on the close, which defeats the zone. The Sixers were fortunate enough to see some Milwaukee threes miss the basket–a far cry from the events of Thursday’s game.

The Sixers were actively looking to feed Dwight Howard in the low post with Tobias Harris on the court. Resorting to Howard post-ups are fine with five seconds left on the shot clock. But, there’s no sense in doing it as a primary option in that second unit with a downhill wing like Tobias Harris on the court. The first look should always be whatever Harris can get, and then the offense flows as dictated by the game.

Besides the fouls and turnovers, Howard has been fine in his role. But, he’s nowhere close to the dominant force he once was with his back to the basket. Part of that is the evolution of the league, part of it is just natural regression with age. To make the first pass and then set up for a Howard post-up is a waste of clock and possession, given the shot quality rendered from such plays.

“I think he’s going to have a bright future in the NBA, so far.”

Tyrese Maxey has certainly been a syringe of energy since Rivers decided to give him some minutes over the last few games. The jumper is inconsistent, as has been mentioned endlessly. But, his speed and knack for buzzing past defenders and through the lane like a hot knife through butter has generated open looks that otherwise haven’t been there without Simmons.

I’m not convinced of what the team’s long-term plans are for the rookie. But, he isn’t adding damage to an already inconsistent second unit. When Simmons returns, the issue becomes the division of duties between Hill and Shake Milton. It’s pretty clear that Milton isn’t a point guard; not at this stage of his career, at least. Ideally, Rivers adjusts a bit by moving Milton off the ball and gives Hill lead guard duties with the second unit. That leaves nothing for Maxey, especially considering Rivers’ reputation of favoring more veteran players over youngsters.

After the loss, George Hill lauded Maxey’s upside as a guard in the NBA. “I like the kid a lot, I think he’s going to have a bright future in the NBA, so far,” Hill said. “I like his speed, I like when he gets his driving hand behind him. He listens. He’s going to be a really good guard. I’m just trying to do the things and tell the things that I’ve learned from some of the great players that I’ve played with, the good and the bad, on and off the floor, just so he can be a better player.”

“Mid-third quarter I thought we kind of let go of the rope a little bit.”

The Sixers were down seven points with just one Milwaukee possession to go before halftime. Rather than hold tight and go into the half with some momentum, Philly forfeited a corner triple that pushed Milwaukee’s lead to ten at the intermission. During their current losing streak, Philly has really gotten away from its own defensive philosophies. Rivers constantly references the importance of not stepping away from the corner shooter to help. To be fair to the players in this particular scenario, it looked as though they were instructed (by Rivers) to trap the ball-handler, who broke the trap to get the corner three.

Regardless, open corner triples have been a problem over the past four games. That’s exactly what the Sixers try to prevent. It would be ignorant to neglect Simmons’ importance to the perimeter defense. His agility and length enable defensive rotations and recovery in ways that don’t translate on the box scores. But, the team still has their pillars in mind and an elite perimeter defender in Matisse Thybulle. The defense shouldn’t be caving in on itself like this.

Rivers felt the focus on defending the corners slipped in the second half, rather than the first. “Tonight, I thought the first half they were shooting 36 percent. I was happy with that,” Rivers said. “I thought the game got away from us, obviously, in the second half. But, I thought we did a pretty good job up until silly time tonight. Then, everybody got shots. So, I wasn’t really disappointed defensively. First half, I thought we were terrific. Mid-third quarter I thought we kind of let go of the rope a little bit. And that happens, you can live with that.”

Second Half

Philly stayed tough for the first few minutes of the third quarter, cutting a ten-point deficit to just one point with three-and-a-half minutes gone in the frame. But things quickly spiraled out of control once Milwaukee woke up. The Bucks stopped settling for jumpers and limited their live-ball turnovers. Simultaneously, they began abusing Philly’s interior defense. The Bucks scored a number of baskets from excellent off-ball cutting. If there were misses, Milwaukee was competing for the rebounds and getting second chance baskets on tip-ins. All of that culminated in a 29-5 Bucks run. To their credit, Milwaukee stepped up and executed once they felt a bit of pressure. Milwaukee simply handled their business against an under-manned Sixers team, just as you would expect a contender to do.

Bobby Portis absolutely tortured the Sixers with a jump-shooting clinic in this two-game series. Even when Philly contested, he was knocking down jumpers from all over the floor without so much as a lucky bounce on any of them. It must be infuriating when you think you do a fine job of closing defensive possessions, only to have a role player repeatedly burn you with timely, back-breaking jumpers. There is an irony to seeing a stretch big burn the Sixers. They have neglected the need for such a player since 2018. They’ve sprinkled in some attempts at jamming stretch bigs into misfitting jobs. But, nothing has worked even remotely well enough to meet even the standard set by Ersan Ilyasova.

“I won’t say it means nothing, but don’t mean much.”

At the conclusion of the season, the Sixers will have lost all three of their matchups with the Bucks. They already took two of three against Brooklyn to secure that tie-breaker. Philly is certainly struggling at the moment. But, it cannot be ignored that they’ve been without their best perimeter defender for the entirety of this stretch. As it applies to how they fare against the Bucks, Philadelphia has been without Embiid, Simmons, or both in all three matchups. It’s difficult to evaluate which team really is the better one. That’s what the playoffs are for.

Seth Curry certainly doesn’t think much of Philadelphia’s struggles with the Bucks in this regular season. “Couple years ago, I was in Portland. We got swept, beat four times by OKC. We beat them in five in the first round of the playoffs. Completely different game come playoff time. I won’t say it means nothing,” Curry said, “but don’t mean much.”

The Sixers (39-21) will head home to face the Oklahoma City Thunder (20-40) on Monday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.