The Philadelphia 76ers (28-12) played host to the Milwaukee Bucks (25-14) on Wednesday night. It was the second of a back-to-back for Philly. The Sixers scrapped their way to victory over the Knicks late in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night to push their winning streak to six games. Milwaukee, on the other hand, had won four consecutive games after beating the Wizards by eleven points on Monday. This game would’ve been a highly-anticipated matchup had Joel Embiid been available. Nonetheless, it was still a battle of heavy-weights fighting to bolster their Eastern Conference resumes. Despite building a nineteen-point lead, the Sixers ran out of gas light, and succumbed to the Bucks in overtime, 109-105. 

Before we get to the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Aside from Joel Embiid, all Sixers were available to play. The usual suspects were in the starting lineups.

Axel Toupane, who was not with the team, was the only player unavailable for Milwaukee. Dave Budenholzer started Jrue Holiday, Donte DiVincenzo, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez.

First Half

Ben Simmons really struggled establishing himself early in this affair. The Bucks were utilizing scram-switches on his post-ups. If neither Antetokounmpo nor Holiday was the primary defender, the Bucks were evacuating the primary Simmons defender as the entry pass was being made to the post. That effectively eliminated the mismatch that Simmons often pursues in the post.

“My eyes told me we missed a lot of wide-open shots.”

With the extra length and muscle countering him in the post, Simmons wasn’t able to get his rhythm going early. Turnovers were a byproduct of that lack of rhythm. Simmons committed four of his own in the first quarter. The team, as a result of Milwaukee’s length and instincts in the passing lanes, had seven giveaways in the opening frame. Perhaps you can get away with that against bottom-dwellers. But, that will not do against top teams.

Rivers, however, felt that the offensive slog was more about shots just not falling. “My eyes told me we missed a lot of wide-open shots,” Rivers said. “Great shots. Tobias had great shots. Furk had great shots. I thought the effect of last night’s game absolutely played a play. I thought their defense was good, hell, it was another back-to-back game of 1989 basketball and which is physical, tough.”

Doc Rivers compromised his normal rotations ever so slightly in the opening frame. He had Simmons and Harris playing the entire quarter. For someone who is generally very even-keel, at least in conversations with media, that decision hinted at some urgency from the head coach. Ideally, they win both games of the back-to-back, of course. But, with Tuesday’s win over the Knicks requiring a closing effort, the Sixers weren’t going to be their freshest in this game. With the lead slowly building for Philly, Rivers decided to keep the good times rolling with his primary generators of offense in the game so that the rhythm would keep building before the back-to-back fatigue kicked in. It was clearly a statement game for Philly, and Rivers was prepared to break his routines if it meant maximizing his short-handed team’s chances of winning.

All Bench

The great separator was Philly’s all-bench lineup in the early second quarter. Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott, and Dwight Howard took advantage of the opportunity to create additional separation. In four-and-a-half minutes of play, that unit outscred Milwaukee’s lineup 8-2, pushing a seven-point lead to thirteen before any starters returned.

Philly’s staunch defense, which held the Bucks’ offense–second-best in the league–to 31 points on 58 first-half possessions. It’s not ideal to be without Embiid, of course, but the Sixers simply out-executed the Bucks on their way to a 45-31 halftime lead.

Second Half

A lack of consistent offensive execution from the Sixers saw them making strides and then running out of gas throughout the third quarter. Fortunately, their defensive urgency was outstanding. Even when turnovers were costing them possessions and shots weren’t falling, they were able to keep the Bucks relatively even when they had the ball. Of course, you’re only going to keep Giannis and Milwaukee’s three-point shooting at bay for so long. The Bucks made their inevitable run to close the third down just nine.

The Sixth Man Needs To Be Decisive

It really seems like Milton has hit a wall on the offensive end of the court. He’s attacking without purpose, zipping into the lane and then emerging from the other side dribbling the ball aimlessly. The pointless dribbling kills the half-court offense, as it eats clock and doesn’t produce anything consistently. When he’s not aimlessly dribbling, he’s spotting for triples. The ball looks increasingly heavy in his hands, and his three-point shooting has been ice-cold for much of the season.

The only time he’s really effective is when he’s knifing downhill in the pick-and-roll and elevating for pull-up midrange jumpers or getting to the rim. The theme on those possessions is, of course, that he’s being decisive. I’ve echoed this before, but the Sixth Man cannot be indecisive. Milton needs to get back to having his mind made before he takes his first dribble. He should be looking to score every time. For a bench that is consistently inconsistent, his role is very clearly to facilitate offense as a scorer with the second unit. When he goes through lulls, it damages the already poor continuity between the starting unit and the bench. When Milton is having poor stretches, he certainly cannot be picking up technical fouls for jawing with officials or opposing players like he did on Wednesday. The goal is to stop at injury, not add insult to it.

Curry left the game in the fourth quarter after rolling an ankle on a transition opportunity. He did not return. Rivers anticipated that it was a sprain, albeit not a severe one, after the game.

“I think we were definitely fatigued out there come fourth quarter.”

You could see the fatigue that comes with a grind-it-out back-to-back hit very early in the fourth quarter. The jumpers repeatedly missed short, defense was being played with arms, and weak fouls were being committed. Fortunately for the Sixers, both teams went on an incredible cold streak throughout the fourth quarter. Budenholzer, sensing his team’s fatigue kicking in, revitalized the Bucks with some late timeouts. The refreshing worked, as the Bucks were able to storm ahead with a trio of threes late in the fourth. You give credit to the Sixers for battling, as they were able to send the game to overtime on a corner triple from Korkmaz with less than one second remaining.

The Sixers, themselves, admitted to some fatigue after the loss. “I think we were definitely fatigued out there come fourth quarter,” Tobias Harris said. “High-emotion game yesterday and today just throughout the game. I thought today’s game we had the looks we wanted. They just didn’t fall. I know, myself, I would’ve took all those shots back that I got. I thought we put ourselves in a position to win the game. It didn’t go our way, we’ll rest up and get ready for the next one.”

“We show pretty well.”

Ultimately, the finishing blow for Philly was Simmons picking up his fourth and fifth fouls early in the extra session. Having to forfeit physicality on defense for the sake of staying in the game, Simmons was forced to defend without getting up in Giannis’ space. The two-time MVP was able to put the game away from there.

There’s no such thing as a good loss. There’s no such thing as a loss that sits well with a team or its fans. But, the Sixers shouldn’t be discouraged by a game they lost in overtime without their MVP candidate on the second night of a back-to-back, especially a loss at the hands of a supposed contender. After the game, it was clear the Sixers weren’t concerned, either. “I don’t even factor that in [not having Joel],” Rivers said. “I just factor in the guys that played against the team they play. Obviously, adding Joel helps us, but I don’t factor that in. I’m talking about the guys that played tonight against the guys that played tonight. We show pretty well.”

The Sixers (28-13) will have two days off before hosting the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM. You can catch every minute of the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.