Giannis Antetokounmpo at the free throw line, where he shot 4-for-15 on Friday night; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (7-7) hosted the Milwaukee Bucks (11-3) on Friday. Philadelphia aimed to move over .500 for the first time this season. Milwaukee wanted to build on Wednesday’s win over the Cavaliers. Joel Embiid went for 32 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists to power the Sixers past the Bucks, 110-102.

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Bucks were without Khris Middleton, who is recovering from ligament surgery on his left wrist.

Pat Connaughton has a strained right calf and was out. Wesley Matthews was out with a strained right hamstring. Joe Ingles is recovering from a torn left ACL and was unavailable.

Mike Budenholzer started Jevon Carter, MarJon Beauchamp, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bobby Portis, and Brook Lopez.

The Sixers were without James Harden, who is recovering from a strained tendon in his right foot. Tobias Harris missed the game with left kip soreness.

Furkan Korkmaz is recovering from left knee effusion and was unavailable. Jaden Springer has a strained right quad and was unavailable.

Michael Foster Jr. is on a Two-Way G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Danuel House Jr., PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.

Likes

There was clearly some extra oomph to this game from the opening tip. Antetokounmpo got Embiid to bite on a fake, giving him a pass to burst around the big guy and throw down an emphatic dunk. Embiid exacted his revenge a few minutes later, spike-blocking a layup that Antetokounmpo left hanging to the floor to get Philadelphia out in transition. Embiid scored Philadelphia’s first seven points of the game, and nearly threw down a vicious dunk on Lopez, instead settling for a trip to the free throw line. Antetokounmpo scored eight of Milwaukee’s first 12. Just an awesome display of star power early in a Friday night basketball game. What more could you would?

Maxey really settled into this game after his touch escaped him over the last handful of contests. He scored 24 points in 21 first-half minutes, shooting 6-for-8 on twos and 3-for-4 on threes. The deep ball was working for him both on the catch and pulling up behind screens if defenders didn’t follow him all the way through the action. He leveraged his speed when Milwaukee pressed up on him to take away the threes, putting the ball on the deck and navigating traffic to get closer to the basket for finishes at the rim.

Maxey also dished five assists before the intermission. The Sixers needed pretty much every bit of his output to stay within striking distance of Milwaukee in the first half. Equally important was that someone besides Embiid was able to lift the Sixers. After he did quite literally everything in the Utah game, the offense desperately needed a little more balance. Embiid wasn’t quite his dominant self in the first half. But, he didn’t need to be with Maxey leading the way.

Paul Reed had the unenviable task of trying to stop Giannis as a reserve on the heels of some pretty brutal minutes over his last three games. But, I thought he actually responded quite well to the challenge. He played a tad less spastically, controlling his limbs and defending with his legs instead of torso and arms. He was actually able to stay in front of Giannis when it came to defending him on an island, forcing the Bucks star to settle for midrange jumpers or low-quality shots fading to the baselines.

The game also seemed to slow down a bit for him on offense, a notable play being when he caught the ball on the move, came to an emphatic jump-stop, and pivoted for a finish at the basket. Reed avoided disaster when the ball was in his hands, too, finding partners to rifle the ball to and then following the pass to set a screen and dive out of the way. There was no panic or attempt to do too much when the safety pin teammate didn’t immediately present right in front of him. Reed was patient on both ends, and that, alone, was a huge moment for his growth.

So much of Reed’s trustworthiness hinges on his ability to slow the game down and think through what he’s seeing to make good decisions at an effective rate. He’s still a long way from consistently making those right decisions, and the only way to improve it is to continue to get experience. But, I thought there were some strides made in that regard tonight. 

I’ve been pretty critical of Milton’s play early in this season, but he was everything the Sixers needed when Maxey left the game (more on that later). The backup guard poured in 15 points on 12 field goal attempts with seven assists off the bench in this one. I thought his most critical contribution was refusing to be overwhelmed by a defensively daunting backcourt tandem in Jrue Holiday and Carter. The more the ball is in your hands, especially when your usage is inconsistent, the more reasonable it is to expect some volume of turnovers.

But, Milton really didn’t struggle with controlling the ball. Even when one of Milwaukee’s guards applied pressure on the inbound, he remained calm and fought his way up the floor. Even if he was denied the inbound pass, Milton stayed involved in the play, making sure to be available nearby in case his teammates needed help breaking the pressure. Milton obviously is not the same weapon Maxey is, but the Sixers’ offense was plenty stable with him on the floor.

The Sixers have won their fair share of games in which their talent beat the opposition’s talent. That isn’t the same thing as earning victories, though. They’ve sleep-walked through some ugly victories thus far. But, tonight was a well-earned win for the home team. Down three opening-night starters in the second half, the Sixers didn’t operate from the perspective of being shorthanded on offense. They knew they only had so many non-Embiid options they could rely on for contributions on that end of the floor. So, they didn’t try to win by outscoring the Bucks. Rather, they buckled down defensively.

Their bench went five guys deep in this game, and all ten Sixers who logged minutes locked in and gave their best efforts on defense. There were plenty of fouls on both sides, with Milwaukee getting all of their normal whistles in this one. But even through the fouls, the Sixers remained aggressive and as disciplined as they could be on defense. Even if rotations weren’t always crisp, they simplified the task to get to the open man so that Milwaukee wasn’t getting open threes.

Close-outs were controlled, the Sixers contesting shooters with choppy footsteps so as to not give up the drive to the basket. Milwaukee inevitably got their fair share of shots at the rim, but the Sixers didn’t surrender bunches of open threes. That was how a band of role players surrounding Philadelphia’s lone superstar pulled off a victory against one of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.

The Sixers forged a small comeback and eventually took a near-double-digit lead in this one. But, they needed their ace to secure the victory down the stretch when the Bucks threatened to steal it out of their hands. And for the second game in a row, Embiid saved his best for last. He knocked down a handful of midrange jumpers in crunch time. The elbows and nail were his preferred automatic points once again. But when it came time for one last play to close out a huge victory, Embiid put his intelligence on full display.

Rather than take the dagger shot, he leveraged his midrange artistry to lift Milwaukee’s interior defenders ever so slightly, creating a path for Milton to sneak into the dunker’s spot. It seemed Embiid was about to rise into yet another silky jumper. Instead, he rifled the ball to Milton for a beautiful dime. It was another sign that Embiid’s physical prowess and skillset have crossed paths with his intelligence. If prime Embiid can draw on some playmaking as the fulcrum of the offense when the spotlight is on him, the Sixers will be all the more challenging to defend, his greatness making those around him better as much as those around him make life easier for him.

Dislikes

I get the Sixers didn’t really have many options with Harris out. But, it was immediately telling where their heads were with the defensive strategy when Tucker opened the game as the lone wolf standing in Antetokounmpo’s way. He is not tall, athletic, or quick enough to give the two-time MVP any sort of consistent resistance. Even if Tucker beat Giannis to a spot on the floor, the Bucks’ superstar could beat him with verticality by shooting over his outstretched arms. Not that anyone really has an answer for Giannis, but the Sixers made it known early that they didn’t believe they had much of a chance of solving him if even for one night. 

Embiid looked a bit gassed after scoring the Sixers’ first seven points of the game, which is somewhat hilarious considering he couldn’t have felt all that energetic whilst scoring 26 of his team’s 27 fourth-quarter points in Sunday’s win over the Jazz. I guess having four days off between games can make that first stint a little rough. But, his defense took a pretty significant dip when the battery ran low. The same guy that delivered an inspiring block on Giannis early in the first quarter stood idly on the other side of the lane when a Buck found his way to the rim for a layup. He then made very little effort to contest a Lopez midrange jumper in isolation.

There will be lulls when he has to reserve energy while staying in the game. But, the Sixers were down early in this game and needed every bit of force they could muster from their best players. That he actively took a couple defensive plays off hurt his team quite a bit as they tried to stay within reach. 

Maxey left the game in the second quarter after twisting his left foot on a drive to the basket and did not return. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, x-rays on Maxey’s foot were negative. He will have an MRI on Saturday to determine if there is any ligament damage. Shake Milton replaced him in the starting lineup in the second half.  

Embiid was whistled for a hard shoulder check on Antetokounmpo as the Greek Freak charged down the floor in transition. It was deemed a Flagrant 1. I lean towards it being the right call. But, some fans were relieved to see it wasn’t a Flagrant 2 and, thus, ejection. Have to be careful of that when all of Harden, Maxey, and Harris are out.

The Sixers (8-7) will host the Minnesota Timberwolves (7-8) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBA TV.

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