April 22, 2021
The Sixers got punched in the mouth in the first quarter against the Bucks on Thursday night, and they never really recovered from that opening blow. Philadelphia's 124-117 loss (which was not nearly as close as the score indicates) is their third straight, and another matchup with Milwaukee looms this Saturday.
Here's what I saw.
• This was a good night for the young backup guards on Philly's roster. Tyrese Maxey continues to show new things each night, and the rookie hit a pair of catch-and-shoot threes in the first quarter as the lone bright spot during a dark stretch. The bigger surprise was Shake Milton, who rebounded from a brutal run of play with some made threes, some in-between funk, and the general aura of an NBA player. That's a lot more than you've been able to say about him recently.
Whether there's room for both of these guys in the playoff rotation is another story, but if they can both come on strong down the stretch, it will give Rivers options at a time when every coach is in desperate need of changeups. Milton's herky-jerky game contrasted with Maxey's balls-to-the-wall approach should keep teams off-kilter.
Not a whole lot of positive for me to point to on the individual front otherwise. Unless you're into standstill threes from Mike Scott, you're out of luck.
• You wouldn't expect the Sixers to lose a game where they shoot this well from three, but I suppose shooting better than 50 percent from three for basically the entire game is worth celebrating.
• The Milwaukee Bucks have not come up in contender or No. 1 seed discussion (at least in Philadelphia) as much as the Brooklyn Nets have. And I get it — they flamed out in spectacular fashion last year, they're not as new and exciting, and the Nets' top-end talent is simply better.
But pushing for the No. 1 seed is not just about the Nets. A second-round matchup with the Bucks would give Philly some problems, even if we still haven't seen them play one another at full strength this year.
One major issue for the Sixers as it stands: the Bucks are going to stretch them out and can potentially dampen Embiid's defensive impact depending on how the matchups shake out. With Brook Lopez hanging in the corner or above the break for Milwaukee, Embiid was forced with an awful choice to either ignore the dribble penetration the Bucks were getting or rely on someone else to close out on his man.
It was often worse when the Bucks actively put Embiid in pick-and-rolls. Embiid played pretty far back against Lopez, whether by design or out of a desire to conserve energy, and Lopez was just stepping into open three after open three as a result. Lopez is not a marksman, but he's a decent shooter for the position and certainly can make you pay if you don't pretend to guard him.
(Here's the worst part: they didn't deal with Bobby Portis a whole lot better when they were up against backups for the Bucks. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but defending stretch bigs will be a critical part of any title run. Good luck winning a championship if defending a spread floor is this challenging for you.)
Embiid almost certainly has to guard Giannis in this matchup, which he has shown he is more than capable of doing in the past and had some success with in the second half. Why bother waiting to go with that matchup?
It's not like there's a case that he was saving energy on Lopez — having to close out to the three-point line is hard work. And even when the Sixers settled on the right matchups, they shot themselves in the foot with undisciplined mistakes.
Overhelping off of shooters was a huge problem, and the Sixers gave Milwaukee opportunities to get threes off on plays where they could have produced turnovers by simply standing in place in the corner. Embiid successfully shadowed Donte DiVincenzo on a possession in the third quarter, and with the Bucks wing hanging in mid-air looking for a bail-out, Seth Curry jumped off of Khris Middleton in the corner for no reason at all, allowing the Bucks swingman to cash in for three easy points. It will go down as one of the single worst defensive plays of the year.
Bottom line for me is that you can't excuse this performance away as a product of hot shooting. The Sixers conceded a lot of those open looks themselves!
• If I could have picked one guy who probably deserved to rest for Thursday night's game, it was veteran wing Danny Green. He's been the closest thing they have to an iron man this season, so the minutes and reps are piling up for him as this nasty schedule rolls along. It showed against Milwaukee, with Green out of position and visibly out of gas on a lot of defensive possessions throughout the night.
That's not who he is, so I'm willing to chalk it up to schedule-related issues instead of crushing him for it. But they should be smart about buying him some time off down the stretch. He has gone deep into the playoffs for the majority of his career, and saving some miles for the games that count would be a prudent move.
• Tobias Harris was the guy who helped carry them for the third quarter stretch that briefly got them back in the game, but the way he came out for this game was simply inexcusable. He looked like one of the guys who had taken the floor and played a game the night before, playing flat, uninspired basketball for a lot of the first half.
One area that really got on my nerves watching the game: his inability to bring down a defensive rebound. Several opportunities to end possessions all but jumped into his hands off of the rim, and Harris was completely unprepared to catch the ball, turning would-be stops into second-chance opportunities for Thursday's frontrunners.
(And really, Embiid deserves some scorn for not helping them on that front, either. It's tough to pull down many rebounds when the opponent is shooting the lights out, but three rebounds on the evening is just miserable.)
• Quietly, matchups with Lopez have given Embiid trouble at times. He's a big body who is disciplined when guys try to back him down in the post, and those sort of players tend to vex Philly's franchise center. That was the case early on in Thursday's game, though it's fair to point out nothing was going well in the first quarter.
It was a different story in the second quarter. Embiid had Lopez seeing ghosts on the defensive end, baiting him into bad reaches and wild block attempts that allowed Embiid to draw fouls or blow by him. Facing him up, Embiid set up shop on the left block for what seemed like the entire second quarter, waiting out Lopez until he found a shooting window.
That's what made the rest of the evening so frustrating. Embiid settled far too much on the offensive end in the second half, losing all of that momentum coming out of the tunnel at halftime. I'm an advocate for Embiid threes, but early clock jumpers are just bailing your opponent out.
• For those taking notes at home, George Hill defending Jrue Holiday does not seem like it's going to be a favorable matchup for Philly if these teams meet in the playoffs.
• Look, the rest advantage for Milwaukee was not the only reason this game got out of hand in the first quarter. You normally are going to feel the effects of a back-to-back at the end of the second game, not right out of the chute.
But you're telling me the NBA's schedule makers looked at a late April game between the Bucks and Sixers — one of the few of these god forsaken games that truly matter this late in the year — and decided it would make sense to have one on a back-to-back and the other fresh from multiple days off? That was the best these jokers could come up with?
It's insulting to everyone's intelligence to suggest there wasn't a better way to go about this. Hell, you could have even just made this pair of games back-to-back and played them on Friday and Saturday to make sure you weren't getting at least one clunker of a game. Let me run these networks and make these schedules if no one with common sense can step in.
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