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March 18, 2021

A closer look at both sides of the Sixers' loss to the Milwaukee Bucks

The Sixers losing after holding a 19-point lead against the Bucks in the second half would normally be cause for quite a bit of angst. It wasn't exactly an easy pill to swallow on Wednesday night, but head coach Doc Rivers did not walk away from the game with a whole lot of regrets.

"I don't leave this game discouraged, let me put it that way," Rivers told reporters on Wednesday evening.

He has reason to feel that way, with Philadelphia playing some inspired defense against one of the league's best players. So what does the tape say about both sides of the ball? 

The Sixers have options against Giannis Antetokounmpo

Ben Simmons was basically drawing dead against Milwaukee's best player in years past. In one early-April meeting between the two teams back in 2019, Giannis repeatedly blew Simmons off of his spot over and over again in the post, en route to 45 points and a win over Philadelphia.

There was a noticeable difference this time around, with Simmons serving as the primary defender on the Greek Freak for most of the night. Antetokounmpo's final line was impressive, but it was not because of anything he did against Simmons: matchup data credits Simmons for holding Giannis to 2/8 shooting and four turnovers across 37-ish possessions on Wednesday night. The defensive effort vs. Antetounmpo was a big reason Doc Rivers wasn't upset about how things played out when discussing the game with reporters after the overtime loss.

"The times Ben was on him, we couldn't have guarded that any better," Rivers said following the game.

It's nothing new to see Simmons beating guys to a spot and stonewalling them this year. But in most instances, he has a decisive physical advantage against the guy he's guarding. That is not the case with Antetokounmpo, whose nickname alludes to how gifted he is. Simmons showed a tremendous amount of core strength Wednesday, sagging and absorbing his opponent at an expert level, baiting Antetokounmpo into a lot of bricked jumpers and silly turnovers.

Even when Antetokounmpo managed to avoid looking like a complete fool, there were possessions where he seemed notably flustered by Simmons' defense. This is a blend of everything that has made Simmons special defensively — strength, agility, footwork, and an understanding of the matchup all coming together to force multiple passes to the same corner:

So what happened late in the game? On their fifth game in seven nights, you could see Philadelphia's legs give out late in the game, leading to a lot of missed shots and defensive choices that came back to bite them. Simmons spent less and less time on Antetokounmpo late, and while Rivers credited Milwaukee for being able to force switches they wanted in the second half, the head coach believes Simmons switched too easily and too often due to fatigue, with the toll of the previous game against the Knicks catching up to everybody by the end of the night. You'll hear no argument from me.

This has an argument as the most telling and important defensive performance Simmons has had over the last two years, even if it was ultimately unsuccessful in driving them to a win. Physically and mentally, Simmons was able to play Antetokounmpo basically the same way Joel Embiid has over the years, and that gives the Sixers two excellent options to defend him if they meet down the road in a playoff series. 

Struggles in the halfcourt

Losing the NBA's current leader in free throws per game would be a hard thing for any team to absorb. It's particularly difficult for these Sixers, whose supporting cast has proven basically completely unable to pick up the slack at the stripe without him.

Philadelphia managed to earn just eight free-throw attempts against the Bucks on Wednesday, with one of those coming on a technical foul that Seth Curry promptly bricked. Following the game, Rivers tried to split the difference between questioning the officials and accepting responsibility for his team not getting there.

"I was surprised we only went to the foul line eight times for the game. And I thought we were driving, especially the first half, every bit as much as them," Rivers said Wednesday. "I think one was three free throws from [Furkan Korkmaz] and the other one was a tech from Seth. Other than that we had four free throws, which either tells us we weren't driving enough — I didn't think we did get to the paint enough — but I thought we should have went to the line a little bit more."

The problem doesn't end with Simmons, but it certainly starts there. Milwaukee loaded the paint to bother him all night, and he turned in one of his worst offensive performances of the year. There are some who believe this is a problem related to surrounding personnel, and there certainly clips that support that view. Both of Philadelphia's big men who played Wednesday night are at-the-rim players, and when the Bucks can leave two defenders at the rim to crowd Simmons, it becomes even more difficult than normal to get through the traffic, and this is a Bucks team that plays great interior defense on a routine basis as it is.

But the Sixers did make attempts to open the floor up with small ball against Milwaukee, turning to small ball in both halves in an attempt to unlock their struggling offense. If Mike Scott makes any of the five threes he missed, perhaps we wouldn't be talking about this topic (or a loss) today.

The story remains the same even when the Sixers have an extra (theoretical) shooter on the floor. Teams would much rather live with the Mike Scott types of the world being open while walling off the paint. You could argue it's a moot point anyway because Simmons wasn't too interested in trying to break through that wall at that point in the game. As he often does, Simmons was simply looking for the pressure release pass, which would result in a tightly-contested shot from Tobias Harris. Sprinting at the defense with no secondary action and no plan is not going to get it done:

(Rivers abandoned the idea quickly, mind you, because Philadelphia's defense on the other end could not live up to their end of the bargain. That has been the case pretty much all season. Philadelphia's defensive efficiency with Simmons as the nominal big is in the bottom five percent of all lineups used in the league this season, surrendering 121.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. Perhaps they need the right sort of player to be the fifth guy, someone like a high-end outcome for Paul Reed who can protect the rim, switch, rim run, and knock down open threes. Unfortunately, players who check all those boxes are some of the most sought out players in the league. You're not keeping one for long on a team with Embiid starting at center.) 

The free-throw problem is obviously much bigger than Simmons. Harris is arguably a bigger culprit as the No. 2 scoring option, with his reliance on the in-between game robbing him of the opportunity to put himself on the line more. Without taking anything away from the job Jrue Holiday did on him, Harris was a victim of his own decision-making and shot selection as much as anything else, reverting to the slow style Rivers has tried to coax out of him from the moment he took the job with Philly in the offseason. 

But when your primary initiator on the perimeter is not even looking at the rim and waiting for Korkmaz to figure it out in overtime, that's where it starts. This play below was immediately followed by a sideline out of bounds play where the Sixers ran a dribble handoff that ended with Korkmaz dropping a pass off for a Dwight Howard midrange jumper.

Problems that fade from view with Embiid healthy? Perhaps. But this isn't exactly a new story for the Sixers. 

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