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November 18, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers ride Embiid late to big win over Bucks

An elite first half from Tyrese Maxey and killer shotmaking from Joel Embiid down the stretch powered the Sixers to a 110-102 win over the Bucks on Friday night.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Sometimes, you get a national TV game with a decent amount of hype that ends up being a dud. So goes the regular season. Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo did their best to assure us that wasn't going to happen within the first five minutes of Friday night's game.

It's a team sport and all that jazz, but individual battles between great players are part of why people watch this sport. Both guys came up with big-time highlights in the first quarter. Giannis was able to strike for first blood, drawing Embiid in isolation and shaking him badly before throwing down a hellacious dunk at the rim:

Not one to take his loss lying down, Embiid got his revenge moments later, flying in from the weakside to send Giannis to the floor with a block I felt from the media section on the other side of the arena:

That's what we all showed up to see. Delightful.

• Against all odds, the Sixers managed to hang around in the first half when Embiid hit the bench. I'm not really sure how it happened, even though I watched it in person. They had a lineup of Reed-Niang-Tucker-Milton-Maxey on the floor, and at least two of those guys had pretty significant issues. Milton tried to switch to no one when he ended up on Giannis at one point, and Tucker spent most of the first half getting punished by Giannis.

Okay, I suppose the reason was simply, "Tyrese Maxey was on the floor and feeling himself a little bit." Though Embiid's shot went missing for a lot of the first half, he was picked up by his young running mate, who exploited a defensive style Sixers fans couldn't stand their team playing in years past.

Mike Budenholzer, who shares coaching roots with Brett Brown, had his bigs sitting back in drop coverage against pick-and-rolls for a lot of this game, happy to allow Philadelphia to attack from midrange. Maxey was eager to take the Bucks up on that offer, and he built confidence and rhythm over the course of the first half, eventually piling up 24 points on what felt like mostly clean looks at the rim. He looked well on his way to having one of the games of his young career, because as we've seen with Maxey over the last couple of years, it's hard to slow him down once he gets a head of steam.

Unfortunately, Maxey was knocked out of this game by an injury late in the first half, so we weren't able to see what he could do across 48 minutes against this team. But the Sixers are likely out of this game at halftime without his contributions, and that is enough to name him one of the shining stars of this game. 

• This was not the shooting performance Embiid offered in their previous win against the Utah Jazz, and for the second consecutive game against the Bucks, we saw Brook Lopez frustrate the big man on the block. That probably shouldn't be a shock at this point — Lopez has sharpened himself into one of the league's most effective paint defenders, using his considerable size and discipline to wall teams off around the rim. So Embiid had to get his (and create for others) without putting a ton of pressure on the rim, and do so without much guard play to speak of. You know, light work.

When Maxey didn't return in the second half, Philadelphia's game plan was simplified even more than usual, their one offensive directive being, "Get Joel the ball." That was a method to get others involved as much as it was about Embiid's scoring ability — the Bucks sent frequent doubles in Embiid's direction, and more often than not, he felt the pressure before it arrived, firing passes around the floor to create clean looks for his teammates.

I think you should be heartened by how Embiid has responded to double teams in tough moments lately. His teammates have talked up how his trust in them lifts them up as a group, and they bailed him out on 50/50 plays at least a few times in this one. De'Anthony Melton, who had a bad night on offense for most of this game, plucked an errant pass to the corner and somehow managed to stay in bounds in the process, canning the open three that was there as a result of the double on Embiid. The stuff aside from scoring was mostly positive for the big man. 

The worrying stuff: Embiid allowed Lopez to get the better of him in the individual battle for a lot of this game, forcing him to make and take tough shots to even have a chance to score. It's almost shocking how little Embiid has been able to move Milwaukee's starting center this season — it was easy to write off as a sign of fatigue and fitness early in the season, but he looked no better trying to dislodge Lopez in this one, leading to a second half that was almost exclusively filled with midrange jumpers. 

As it turns out, the guy who has absolutely killed teams from the midrange the last few years eventually came out on the winning end of the battle. You can slow him down and bother him for so long, but he will get his at some point. On three consecutive possessions late in the fourth quarter, the Sixers ran the same exact play

In the end, it was Embiid who came through and hit some big shots down the stretch, with the Sixers running the same exact play to get him the ball at the free-throw line over and over again. After banging two in Lopez's grill, Embiid sucked in all the pressure on a critical possession with 1:47 to play, dropping the ball off for a Shake Milton layup and what was effectively the win.

Sometimes, this guy is simply inevitable, no matter how long it takes to dig under the opposing team's wall. A gutsy effort, and one that was rewarded with a win.

• With two minutes and change to play in the third quarter, the Sixers went to a lineup of Harrell/Reed/Niang/House/Milton, and that group somehow extended the lead. They only extended it by a point before the quarter ended, but when you consider they went up against a Giannis-led lineup during that time, that's a borderline miracle.

I'm not exactly sure what to make of this performance from Milton specifically, because it felt like he swung back and forth wildly depending on the possession. There was an airballed three, and then a strip of Giannis, and then a terrible turnover, and then a made runner, you couldn't tell where the ride was going to end. But I think he ultimately came out on the positive side of the ledger, and since he was the guy with the ball in his hands and the Sixers didn't completely fall off of a cliff, he deserves some credit for how he drove the car.

• How is it that Georges Niang consistently seems to be the guy hitting big shots for Philadelphia down the stretch of games this year? Maybe it's because he's one of their only guys both good enough and confident enough as a shooter to let it fly at any and all times. And I certainly think his added burst makes a difference — he has punished guys for playing too far up on him this year, using straight-line drives to get to the paint and either score or set up his boys.

He is playing and thriving in crunch-time minutes in spite of the very real concerns Niang has defensively. Embiid loves playing with him, and that's all that really matters sometimes. 

• Some impressive moments for Danuel House Jr. as a help defender in this one, which is a welcome sight after his rough start to the year. There was also more self-creation for House in this game than we probably saw the rest of this season combined, and he managed to hit a pull-up jumper off the dribble to close a quarter. Most times, I'd say you don't ever want to see that happen, but the Sixers were desperate for some secondary ballhandling in this game, and he came through in a pinch.

The Bad

• The Sixers were able to hang around in the first half because they rode Maxey and shot well as a group. When the former left the game due to an ankle issue before halftime, you knew they were probably in trouble, but mostly because everything else was kind of a shitshow.

Defense and rebounding were, well, not great on Philadelphia's end in that half. Rebounding was a teamwide issue, the Sixers getting killed no matter what style of lineup they put on the floor. Smaller groups were punished. Embiid's issues tracking the ball were capitalized on. Not even double-big lineups featuring Embiid and Paul Reed at the same time managed to solve the problem. In fact, during the brief moment where Embiid and Reed shared the floor together in the first half, Milwaukee had one of the most demoralizing possessions of the season, pounding Philadelphia for several offensive rebounds before eventually converting a bucket and earning boos from the home crowd.

On some level, those issues stem from how they set up on defense. I am well aware that Giannis is a threat from more areas of the floor than the paint, which is where he made his money while the rest of his game caught up over the years. But you're going to have to pick your poison, and having defenders playing up on him is not going to work in your favor, especially when most of your options to defend him straight up are lackluster. As a result of how they covered Giannis, or at least as a side effect, the Sixers were left scrambling quite often, closing out on shooters hard lest they give up an open three. 

When it was Embiid closing out, his brakes don't exactly allow him to come to a quick stop, so the Bucks were able to capitalize on that in a few ways. Either he had to slow-play it and give them more space than you'd want shooters to have on release, or his momentum might carry him past a Bucks player, opening up space inside the arc.

Credit to Milwaukee, of course, for having a great showing on offense aside from what Philly did in the first half. This was not the rock fight we got in the first matchup between the two teams, and even when the Sixers did have strong defensive possessions, the Bucks often managed to score anyway thanks to a nice shotmaking display. But when that's the case, you have to know that you can't give a hot team second chances, and the Sixers got punked pretty frequently.

(Good news: this turned around in the second half!)

• I have probably been the biggest De'Anthony Melton booster on the beat this season, but dear lord, did he have some scatterbrained, harmful moments in this game. Melton needed to be at his absolute best with the injuries in Philadelphia's backcourt, and he did not look in sync with what the rest of the team was trying to do throughout the game.

His biggest crime was botching a series of handoffs with Embiid on the wing that earned groans and boos from the crowd. Equal blame can probably be put on the big man in that spot — he was the one trying to actually hand the ball off, after all — but you saw some of what happens when responsibility is dumped on Melton's plate as a ball handler.

• PJ Tucker seemed to be taking a beating on social throughout this game, and I have to say, I don't quite see what the fuss was about aside from him putting up zero points on the board. Giannis Antetokounmpo got his and we don't have to pretend he's a Giannis "stopper," but a number of those points came on difficult, fading jumpers that you have to live with him making.

On the other hand, yeah, he still looks like he's just kind of there a lot of the time.

The Ugly

• We can discuss team performance and all the odds and ends from this game, but Maxey's health is of the utmost importance coming out of this one. Since he walked off under his own power and was able to shoot free throws while dealing with his ankle pain, it's easy to dismiss the idea that his injury is at all serious. But we recently saw James Harden suffer an injury and finish off a game while dealing with it, only to be ruled out for a month with a foot issue. You really never know how bad it might be until a player gets a full examination, but ruling him out before the second half started was a bad first sign, and the team said that an MRI wouldn't come until Saturday, so everyone will be filled with nerves until then.

With Harden still out of the lineup, losing Maxey for any extended period of time would obviously be a crushing blow for a team already devoid of creativity and punch in the backcourt. Though Maxey has struggled for most of the Harden-less stretch, the threat he poses off-the-dribble at least makes teams think twice when defending an Embiid/Maxey action, which opens up seams in the defense for the big man to attack. He's also one of the best shooters on the team, slump aside, and his loss threatens to compromise their spacing.

But you know, other than that...

Here's hoping Maxey's injury is nothing serious, for his sake more than anything else. Few guys play with such clear joy as Maxey does on the floor, and watching him scream and curse in anger after he got hurt showed exactly how much this game means to him.

• Good to see George Hill make insanely stupid plays in a different uniform after he stunk it up during his brief tenure with the Sixers. Wasn't just a Philadelphia problem, I guess. 

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