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March 17, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers earn statement win over the Bucks with huge Joel Embiid performance

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The Sixers waited most of the season to get their second crack at the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks, and the Sixers sure made it count. Philadelphia went on the road and got one of their best wins of the season, a 130-125 victory that they needed to feel good about themselves.

It was Joel Embiid's performance that made it all possible for Philadelphia, even if he took more threes than some of his fans are probably comfortable with. Here's what I saw on Sunday afternoon.  

The Good

• At practice last week, I asked Brett Brown if he'd ever experienced a scenario like the one the Sixers have with Milwaukee — they're two teams with expectations to go to the Finals, but they basically hadn't faced each other all season. That changed the approach for Sunday's game. They don't have time to feel things out or save stuff for the playoffs, the Sixers needed to figure out what works against the East's top team.

One wrinkle that I loved out of the gate was a coaching decision — Brown had Joel Embiid guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, basically daring Milwaukee's all-world forward to shoot from deep. It's a strategy other teams with mobile big men have used, and it flustered him early on, with Embiid's length at the rim posing a rare problem for one of the league's best finishers.

You can't get fooled by Antetokounmpo making threes, and to their credit, the Sixers stuck to their guns and this strategy. If you're going to live with something, it's Giannis making threes, because you don't want him slashing and kicking to Milwaukee's better shooters. He put up numbers, but the Sixers stayed out in front all night.

On the other end, the Bucks showed their hand to a degree, too. If they're going to die at the hands of the Sixers, it appears they want to just let Embiid take any open three he wants. To Embiid's credit, instead of being baited into taking a ton of those shots, he was selective about his outside looks in the first half and more often dipped in and/or found teammates for open looks.

(Unfortunately, this changed in the second half, where Embiid went into heat check mode for a lot of the second half. I'm okay with shooting some early-clock threes. After you miss a couple, though, you have to let the offense settle in.)

You don't often get to see this stuff late in the regular season, so it was fun to watch the chess match start as we head toward the playoffs. Keep all of this in the back of your mind in the event they meet again in the postseason.

• I've criticized Brown for breaking up the two-star combinations I thought were destined to be their playoff looks (Harris/Simmons and Embiid/Butler) but I think I'm going to have to revisit that stance. We're starting to see growth from the Simmons and Embiid partnership, and playing Butler with Harris seems to have brought the best out of the former while the latter continues to cook.

The best argument for making sure you keep both Harris and Butler this summer is simple — those two can not only keep the second unit afloat when the young stars hit the bench, but they can also expand leads, and that's not a luxury the Sixers have had at almost any point in my lifetime. When you just hand the game over to those two and allow them to do nothing but hunt mismatches, they can pile up points in a hurry.

And at the end of the day, Philly's long-term future will hinge on the growth of Simmons and Embiid together. They showed flashes of what they can do on Sunday, with Embiid even finishing a lob on a direct pass from Simmons above the arc, something we rarely see the big man do.

• I'm still trying to figure out what Mike Scott drank when he went flying into the crowd:

One of my favorite in-game moments in recent memory for any team. Scott had another productive afternoon beyond the beverage consumption on Sunday, and his toughness continues to shine through on the bench. 

• There couldn't have been a better time for the real JJ Redick to emerge from the ether. After one of the worst cold spells he has had as a pro, Redick broke out against Milwaukee, finally turning the open looks he has been getting for a month and a half into results for Philly.

The solution may have been a simple one — early on, the Sixers got Redick some clean looks from midrange, rather than from three, and once he got it rolling there it was that much easier on the other end. That's something to make note of in case Redick goes cold again.

Redick is such an integral part of this team's offense, so he needs to deliver on that end to maintain his spot in the closing lineup. Milwaukee took advantage of him plenty on the other end, and it's his job to offset that and tire out whoever's guarding him by forcing them to chase him around for an entire game.

• We talked about the strategy up top, but let's zoom in on the man himself for a second — this was an unbelievable performance from Embiid. Giannis has absolutely dominated the league this year, and he still got his numbers on Sunday, but it was in a way the Sixers will accept — as the lone man on an island, rather than the maestro of the orchestra.

You can't get away with that strategy on one of the league's best inside players if you don't have a transcendent talent guarding him. And Embiid was far from just a defensive wizard on Sunday, with Embiid crushing the glass, making jumpers, and impacting the game all over the place.

Everyone else's numbers were a bit depressed because the team ran through Embiid. That's okay. He is the franchise cornerstone and is going to be who they live and die with come playoff time. The rest of the guys need to figure out their place around him. A line of 40-15-6 against the East's best team is a damn statement.

• Butler took a backseat for a lot of the afternoon, but he was the man late against Milwaukee. The Sixers went small to buy Embiid some rest midway through the fourth, and the defense on that unit was a trainwreck. The only reason they were able to keep the Bucks at arm's length was because Butler brought his closing shoes.

The Bad

• An area the Bucks exploited on Sunday that I want to keep an eye on for the stretch run — early offense after Philadelphia makes. The Sixers take a lot of pride in preventing teams from scoring in transition or from beyond the three-point line, but this is a different breed of semi-transition. Because Philadelphia has two huge guys playing center, there is a window there to be exploited if teams hunt for shots early in the clock before the Sixers can get set.

The commitment to getting back after makes has to be better from the rest of the guys if the Bucks pursue these shots. It was sloppy on Sunday, and the Bucks got some very clean looks at the rim or from the corners as a result.

• This dunk was one of the best we have seen from Ben Simmons, period:

The call from the ABC crew left me wondering whether they even saw what happened. The game is on, fellas, would be cool to acknowledge it.

• I don't have any idea why T.J. McConnell is playing minutes in lineups with Simmons still. It can't happen, it should not happen, yet it continues to happen. When it did happen, the Bucks simply used his man to double Philadelphia's other, better players and junked up the offense.

This is easily avoidable and Brown continues to do it. It's absolute nonsense.

• I have a strong suspicion Boban Marjanovic is going to be unplayable against Milwaukee in the playoffs. He was absolutely unplayable in the same defensive strategy against Giannis that the Sixers used with Embiid, and that's an area where the Sixers can make an adjustment.

Brown has outright said that they can't do the same things with Boban on defense that they can with Embiid, which is correct. I guess they didn't want to overload and confuse players with reads to make in a matchup with Milwaukee in the regular season, but they got roasted because they tried to keep using the same defense with different personnel.

The counter-argument here — the Bucks played Giannis for basically the entire third quarter to chase matchups like these, and they didn't make any meaningful progress toward winning. One reason I like the big man vs. Giannis strategy is that it baits their best player into playing hero ball, and that's not their style. 

If you allow Milwaukee's shooters to go long stretches of the game without touching the ball, it shouldn't be a surprise when they shoot worse than normal. Basketball is about rhythm, and you're not getting into any if you have to stand around watching your best player heave it up.

The Ugly

• The Sixers had what I would consider a pretty good first quarter and very easily could have gone into it with a six-point lead. For absolutely no reason, T.J. McConnell decided it was a good idea to foul Giannis at halfcourt as time was expiring in the quarter, putting him on the line for three free throws.

It is not the first time McConnell has committed one of these fouls this year. He is on the floor because Brown believes he can trust him to make smart plays and overcome his size and skill limitations. That's about as brain dead of a play as you can make, and he has done it numerous times now. With that little time left, you can sit down at mid-court and let Giannis heave some stupid shot at the rim and feel confident you did the right thing.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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