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March 04, 2018

5 observations from Sixers' turnover-plagued loss to Milwaukee Bucks

Hundreds of fans flew thousands of collective miles to see the Sixers take on the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, which is quite an extraordinary note for a regular season game between two non-rivals. Unfortunately for the boys from Philadelphia, the road support they got from their fans was not enough to carry them to victory, and they squandered several large leads in what was ultimately a disappointing 118-110 loss.

The loss is not a small detail in their fight for playoff seeding, as the Bucks now own a 2-1 advantage in the season series to date. With Philadelphia just a half-game ahead of Milwaukee for the East's No. 6 seed, that sort of tiebreaker could make the difference when the dust settles, and it heightens the stakes for their meeting on the final day of the season, which comes on the second half of a back-to-back for the Sixers.

In the end, there was a singular problem that killed the Sixers, but the threads of the issue connect to larger, and sometimes forgotten realities of this group.

Turnovers drained the Sixers of any chance to win the game

Ah yes, our old friend the turnover problem. Based on the reaction on social media during and after the game — at least the portion that wasn't yelling about Best Picture going to that fish sex movie — you would think Philadelphia's turnovers have been a team-defining flaw that has completely derailed their season.

It's not. And, rather quietly, the turnover plague has slowed down in 2018. After peaking with 18.8 turnovers per game in their horrid month of December, the Sixers cut into that number in the months since, hitting a season-low with 15.9 per game in the month of February. That would still be toward the bottom of the league, but it would be more in line with other teams close to the bottom, rather than the Sixers existing in their own bubble of ineptitude.

Every variety of turnover was on display in Milwaukee. From Embiid throwing errant, lazy passes to JJ Redick dribbling the ball directly off of his own foot, Sixers-Bucks had it all. By the time it was all said and done, the Sixers coughed the ball up a whopping 26 times, and the Bucks tore them apart in transition to the tune of 36 points off turnovers.

It's the latter example used above that bothers this observer personally, though I recognize that pinning every issue on the veterans isn't fair. The young, high-volume guys like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are going to cough the ball up as a product of their roles and inexperience, and you'll ultimately live with that. If you compound that with cough-ups from the guys who are supposed to fill in the gaps, you're going to have a bad time.

Redick is the worst contributor to this problem among the role players, and his five turnovers erased what was otherwise a good night for him on offense. He made bad passes in traffic, sure, but there were times when he had space in front of him to make a play or at least move the basketball, and he just booted the ball.

If we ended the story right there, it would be a fair representation of why the Sixers lost. When they took care of the basketball, they flat-out outplayed the Bucks, and even had one of their best stretches of offensive basketball to begin the game. They hung a cool 43 points on Milwaukee in the opening frame, though that only makes the end result more confounding. How can a team that looked so good at times completely fall apart like that?

That answer is tied to the problem that just will not go away.

The Sixers (still) desperately need Markelle Fultz

Frankly, it is probably too late in the season to expect Fultz to make any real impact this year even if we set aside the ongoing problems with his shot. Throwing him back into the mix would unsettle the rotation and insert a rookie guard into a high-pressure situation with little time for he or his teammates to adjust.

Those are very real problems and qualifiers, and yet the absence of Fultz is still probably the biggest thing holding this team back. The Sixers have believed from the beginning that he's the piece that ties this whole thing together, and it really rings true when the team coughs the ball up over and over and over.

There are a couple of harsh realities the Sixers are confronted with on a regular basis. The first is the sustainability of running an offense through Embiid post-ups and dump-ins, which is doomed to some level of frustration to start with. Two things can be true: Embiid is one of the league's most effective post-up players, and the value of a post-up has never been lower.

The Sixers (and frankly, Embiid) would be much better off if they got him more offensive touches without him having to bully and back guys down to earn his points. He posts up on a whopping 41.7 percent of his possessions, second only to San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge. When you consider how integral he is to Philadelphia's defensive success, a post-up represents a sneaky high-risk, high-reward play.

There's just no real justification to go away from the set with Philadelphia's current group. With Simmons as the only real ballhandler on the floor in crunch-time lineups, they only have two legitimate options for shot creation. The Sixers try to use Embiid in other ways to exploit his many skills, but he is still raw enough that you see his youth emerge at points during the game. He and Simmons have run the high-low game masterfully this year, but passing is still a sometimes skill rather than a constant threat, which leads to miscues even when they don't result in turnovers.

The more pressing problem comes down to the second unit, where T.J. McConnell has been more up-and-down than he has gotten "credit" for. Opposing teams are defending McConnell in a manner similar to how they defend Simmons, the difference being that the latter has elite size and athleticism to get away with his shortcomings.

Milwaukee absolutely killed the Sixers during the minutes McConnell played on Sunday, and it wasn't difficult to figure out why when you rewatch the game. The Sixers do not have the creation equity to continually create open shots if they miss an opportunity early in the shot clock. It's much more likely they'll turn the ball over or be forced into a tough look if they pass up perimeter shots, as McConnell still does far too often.

Simmons wears his share of the blame for committing the eventual turnover on that play above, but it never reaches that point if McConnell simply takes an open corner three, the shortest-distance attempt you can take from deep. You simply can't be a small guard in the NBA and turn that shot down in 2018. Philadelphia concedes leads in part because of plays like this, where they kill themselves with their own meekness.

Fultz returning would kill a gaggle of birds with one stone. Embiid would have some of the pressure taken off him, and Fultz would give Embiid another partner for pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, and other staple plays that don't necessitate the center backing anyone down. We've already seen that play out in the small bit of action they played together.

Fultz's advanced handle would allow him to break down defenders in a way McConnell can't, which in turn creates easier scoring opportunities. Having an actual scorer to carry the second unit could potentially transform this team, and it's why the Sixers were connected to several bench guards prior to the trade deadline.

Of course, all of this assumes Fultz returns as the same guy he was prior to this saga we've watched unfold. That's a big if, but the mix they have right now is definitely not the answer long-term.

Questionable strategic choices in the third quarter

Whether a question of strategy or mentality, the Sixers failed to take advantage of an unbelievably fortuitous situation in the third quarter. Within the first minute of the second half starting, the Sixers had drawn four fouls on Milwaukee. It wasn't from anything fancy or over-complicated, but a series of entry passes toward Embiid forced the Bucks to hack the hell out of him. They were in the bonus from the 11:06 mark of the quarter on, and watching it transpire was one of my favorite things I've seen happen this entire NBA season.

Turnovers sapped their ability to do much of anything, but the team's complete inability or unwillingness to get back to the line that quarter was remarkable. The only foul they drew the rest of the quarter was of the loose ball variety, when a smaller Eric Bledsoe flailed at Dario Saric in a desperate attempt to prevent an offensive rebound. That came at the 8:25 mark of the quarter.

I am generally not the sort of person who decries the three-point shot, but when you are presented with an opportunity like this, you have to press the issue and get inside early and often. But even when the Sixers did turn their attention to the painted area during the rest of the third quarter, their minds and hearts weren't in it. A Dario Saric drive ended with a charge as he tried to throw a cross-court pass to the perimeter, and a couple Embiid possessions ended with him taking off-balance hooks and jumpers.

This is the sort of thing an experienced team exploits, just as they would a favorable matchup on the perimeter or in the low-post. It's on the players to know that first and foremost, but after Milwaukee cut the lead to 11 with 7:11 left in the third, Philadelphia had a moment to regroup with the coaching staff. That they didn't come out with a modified approach falls on Brown, who needed to guide his team in the right direction.

The personnel issues are also in play here. McConnell is never going to drive and play for contact because he's not built to succeed that way. So when he's handling the ball and heading toward the rim, the defense can pretty much assume passes are coming.

Nobody escapes blame for the problem here, particularly Embiid. He is routinely great and hunts matchup advantages when he gets them, but after drawing three fouls in quick succession he has to have better awareness of the game situation as the team's leader. He never really seized the moment, and it cost his team.

The Sixers fans who showed up to Milwaukee were unbelievable

My first watch of Sixers-Bucks was through the national lens Sunday night, and the group organized by Rights to Ricky Sanchez co-host Spike Eskin was absolutely bonkers in Milwaukee on Sunday night. While the trip was originally planned to jokingly boo Malcolm Brogdon — who they believe stole Rookie of the Year from Joel Embiid — it turned into a spectacle of how dedicated Philadelphia fans can be.

The Sixers were well aware of their presence in the arena, and they came out of the gate flying with a friendly group cheering them on. After a Redick three forced an early Milwaukee timeout, you could see Embiid beckon to the group in the arena's upper level as cheers came back his way.

That group was loud and proud throughout the game, busting out "DE-FENSE" chants normally saved for the home team and dropping all sorts of Sixers-related chants in a hostile arena — as hostile as Milwaukee gets, anyway. 

It boggles my mind in the best way possible that there is a group who cares about the Sixers enough to participate in a trip like this for a regular season game in March, let alone to the degree where they're drowning out the home team's fans for stretches of the game. It's not as though this is some destination trip people might circle on their calendar, like an excursion to the warm weather of Miami or Los Angeles. This is all about the basketball, and yes, the jokes.

The credit on that belongs to the RTRS crew, and despite an uneven night, some kudos is due to Embiid. He came out and showed love to the assembled fans after the tough loss and no doubt won even more affection from his devout subjects.

As silly and hilariously petty as the inspiration for the trip was, the communal bonding over sports remains one of my favorite things about covering them.

At least Dario Saric played well

Though that trip was labeled with the #JusticeForJoel tag, another Sixers rookie lost out in the 2016-17 Rookie of the Year battle to Milwaukee's Brogdon. Saric came out like he had a personal vendetta against the Bucks over the voting process, and put on what was probably his best quarter of basketball as a professional.

"The Homie" scored 15 points in the first quarter alone, finishing with 25 on just 11 shots from the field. He had everything working for him, and he killed Milwaukee from every conceivable angle on the court. His three-point shooting continues to be a revelation, and it has totally changed the calculus on what his ceiling could be long-term.

Progress is not always linear, but just look at his shooting splits month-by-month:

Month 3P% 
 March (3 games) 50

Waxing poetic about a great offensive night in a loss is not really my thing, but Saric deserves the recognition for the standout game and the constant improvement in a critical area.

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