After falling by a slight miscalculation of the geometric angles of a full-court shot on Wednesday, the Sixers (39-19) were in Milwaukee to visit the Bucks (35-22) on Thursday. It was the first of a two-game series away from the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers were looking to break a rare two-game losing streak. The Bucks were looking to do the same. Milwaukee connected on 20 triples in the affair, and that was all she wrote for Philly in a 124-117 defeat.
Before we get to what I saw, let’s set the stage.
Tobias Harris (sore right knee) and Seth Curry (left hip flexor recovery) were available to return to action. Ben Simmons remained out with an unknown, non-COVID illness. According to Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, Simmons did not make the flight to Milwaukee late Wednesday night. If he does play on Saturday, he’ll have to travel separately to make the game. Furkan Korkmaz was also unavailable due to a right ankle sprain suffered on a breakaway opportunity against the Suns on Wednesday.
After the game, Rivers stated that the likelihood of Simmons being available for Saturday’s rematch against the Bucks was “Fifty-fifty, at best”.
Doc Rivers started George Hill, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Bucks were at full strength for this game. Mike Budenholzer started Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez.
Tobias Harris took the primary Giannis duties early in this game. Understandably, the Sixers want the reigning MVP to have as little exposure to an Embiid matchup as possible before the playoffs. But, the alternative is obscene. Harris has missed an entire week of basketball with a knee maintenance injury. Outside of that, Antetokounmpo is a very unfavorable physical matchup for Harris. He is far quicker and more agile, wins the athleticism battle handily, and is far stronger and longer. That decision saves the Sixers from revealing Embiid, but it sacrifices a reasonable chance at containing a superstar at the present time.
After the loss, Rivers provided some insight into the matchup decision. “I love Joel on Giannis, but we played last night,” Rivers said. “Right now, we have Tobias just coming back, Seth just coming back. We really felt strong we can’t have him on Giannis to start the game. Just, we don’t want to kill him. So, obviously, if that’s a playoff game, you have Ben or Joel on him, that would be what we would do. That’s why I don’t get lost in regular season games. We would have had a different matchup tonight, we played last night. I’m more concerned about getting through the game.”
“I just felt like we were late on everything.”
The Sixers put themselves on the ropes early with sluggishness on the defensive end of the ball. Poor close-outs and lethargy in closing out and confronting Milwaukee on the perimeter allowed for straight drives to the teeth of Philly’s interior. When Embiid or whomever was in the middle rotated to stop the ball (which is always the default duty), it left the corners vacated. That ultimately played into what Milwaukee wanted, as they were able to generate open looks in the corners. The Sixers got away from their own defensive principles often in the first half. They left the corners open far too often and did not defend the rest of the perimeter with any sense of urgency. Milwaukee bludgeoned Philly from beyond the arc, connecting on 13 of their 21 three-point attempts in the first half.
The rest of the defense was rather uninspiring, as well. Philly offered little resistance once the Bucks pushed past the three-point line. Milwaukee missed just 15 of their 44 field goal attempts in the first half.
Rivers was very disappointed in the team’s defense after the loss. “I just felt like we were late on everything,” Rivers said. “We were soft tonight. That first quarter, they got every shot they wanted. We didn’t put much resistance up.”
Different Day, Same Beast
These days, we cannot and should not go a full half without mentioning Embiid. After revealing that he isn’t completely healthy and wasn’t expecting to play on Wednesday, he followed up with a dominant opening scene in this game. He started out a bit slow on the offensive end of the floor, but Embiid found his groove on that end in the second quarter. He grew extremely comfortable with surgically picking apart Brook Lopez facing up in the pivot. That energy picked up on the other end of the court, as he put forth an incredible defensive stand isolated against Jrue Holiday. With wildly quick feet, Embiid was able to counter all of Holiday’s moves and ultimately made him chuck up a short jumper to no avail:
Joel Embiid was all over Jrue Holiday on this defensive possession. pic.twitter.com/jb9XUn8yjz— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) April 23, 2021
The Bucks’ absurd shooting wasn’t the only abnormality of the first half. Mike Scott hit all three of his triples before intermission. He also ripped down three boards, dished one assist, and didn’t commit a turnover (he did commit two fouls, however) in 13 minutes played.
You could see the fatigue begin to kick in for Embiid early in the third quarter. Lopez loomed as the only force between him and the basket on several possessions after halftime. Rather than use his body to create space and get to the rim, Embiid settled for a number of jumpers. Most of them fell very short. I can’t say it’s hard to understand why that would happen. He was dominant on Wednesday, and he was the only reason the Sixers were able to remain competitive in the first half. But, you could see the fatigue hit when the same possessions that were drives in the first half regressed to pull-up mid-range jumpers in the second half.
“It was a good sign for me and it was a positive from tonight.”
Harris shook off a significant load of rust in the third quarter. Particularly impressive was his fluidity and adjustment to game speed. Harris got to his spots without issue and was able to size up his looks without needing excess misses to calibrate. He scored 14 of his 18 points in the third quarter. He also dished 6 assists with just 1 turnover in the game. Surprisingly, Harris did not seem even the least bit out of breath. I don’t know what he was doing whilst nursing the knee, but he didn’t show any definitive signs of being out of shape.
After the loss, Harris shed some light on what he felt in his return. “Always happy to be back on the court, playing, and doing what I love to do,” Harris said. “So, I felt good out there tonight, in terms of my health and my knee and what I was able to progress and do. Obviously, we’ll continue to find the right rhythm and timing and balance out there. But overall, health-wise I felt really good. It was a good sign for me and it was a positive from tonight.”
The Sixers went on one final run to try to get back in the game with Antetokounmpo on the floor. In that stretch, Embiid registered an emphatic block on the reigning MVP. He showed a little extra emotion after the whistle blew the play dead. Embiid has spoken endlessly about wanting to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. He didn’t hide that desire at all on that play.
The Sixers (39-20) will dance with the Bucks (36-22) one more time on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 3:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.