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April 03, 2023

Instant observations: Horrific first quarter dooms Sixers in loss to Bucks

The Sixers got blitzed in the first quarter and were never able to recover from that initial Bucks demolition, falling 117-104 on the road in one of their final big tune-ups before the playoffs.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Khris Middleton's defensive chops are of major importance in this matchup, something I spotlighted prior to this game. But this time around, it was Tyrese Maxey who exploited Middleton's weaknesses on that end of the floor, forcing Mike Budenholzer to make some adjustments to his rotation in order to cope.

Maxey's speed is a lot for any player to deal with, but Middleton looked particularly ill-equipped to deal with Philadelphia's speed demon. With the Bucks loading up to stop the James Harden/Joel Embiid combination in the middle of the floor, it left Maxey with frequent opportunities to go one-on-one on the second side. Alternatively, Maxey had an iffy defender to test when he had opportunities to run DHOs and P&Rs himself, and he left Middleton in the dust as if he was standing still, attacking the paint with excellent pace in the first half.

The third quarter was when he really began to take center stage, with Maxey burning the nets down from deep as the Bucks struggled to track him in the halfcourt and in transition. He is unfazed by a shot's degree of difficulty, and Maxey has gotten so good at collecting himself and hitting even when he has to take a giant step back or shoot while fading away from the rim in transition.

He helped himself on the defensive end, too. With Giannis Antetokounmpo barreling toward him on a fast break early in the third quarter, Maxey would have been forgiven for giving the bigger, stronger player the matador treatment near the rim. But No. 0 opted to try to make a play instead, and he picked Giannis clean to start a Sixers break the other way 

Good night for Maxey, and a poor night for the team.

• Paul Reed was the only bench guy who had any sort of pulse, good for him. Doc Rivers pulling him to play a bench group that couldn't stop an NCAA team from scoring was not my favorite move of the night. 

(Let me amend this to: Danuel House Jr. had a pulse, too, but he didn't get a chance to play until it was basically too late.)

The Bad

• There have been plenty of games this year where opponents shot the lights out and you could blame the Sixers for issues in execution and effort. Milwaukee's first quarter featured no such malaise — the Bucks caught fire and the Sixers were just helpless to stop the rampage. Those outbursts can happen, even if it's frustrating to have to shrug your shoulders and pray that they'll slow down.

The Bucks hit shots from every angle, every spot on the floor, and with every guy who stepped on the floor for them. Khris Middleton was mostly bad in the last meeting between these two teams, but he came out with his guns blazing in this game, hitting a few tightly-contested jumpers against great defense to get Milwaukee rolling. Possessions like those can be dispiriting and leak into your team's psyche, and I thought that was where things really started to turn for Philadelphia.

After starting out the game with the proper attention to detail and effort on defense, it felt like the Sixers sort of accepted that this one was getting away from them. The shooting barrage turned into much more troublesome possessions for the Sixers, plays where they allowed dribble penetration too easily and didn't do much to clean it up behind the first defender. It wasn't an inspired effort from the guys at the point-of-attack, nor Embiid on the backline, and even when the big man got to the right spot and forced an extra pass or a tough shot, the extra rotation was not made afterward.

Giving the Bucks credit for effective cutting would be going too far in the sense that they barely had to cut at times. The Bucks took advantage of Sixers players cheating away from them off-ball, catching Philly drifting away from their men.

One bad quarter was really all it took to kill this game off. Philadelphia and Milwaukee were neck-and-neck for most of the rest of the game.

• James Harden certainly had some flashes of brilliance in this game, and for a brief moment early in the second quarter, it looked like a Harden-led bench was going to flip the outcome again. Then the Bucks got a rebound off of a Giannis Antetokounmpo miss, recycled the ball, and got a Bobby Portis three on the extra possession. Doom and gloom returned to the game.

This performance was a little too casual from Harden, who is aware these games don't have real stakes and carried himself that way. He either didn't notice or didn't care that Jrue Holiday was sitting and waiting on his passes out of the pick-and-roll, and the Sixers were caught with their pants down thanks to a couple of brutal Harden turnovers in the second quarter. It's easier said than done to stop a behind-the-back pass once you're halfway through delivering it but Harden tossing one right into Holiday's hands for a Bucks runout was tough to watch.

With the game only sort of in reach to open the fourth quarter, it was up to Harden to try to keep Philly in it long enough for Embiid to come back and launch the final comeback. Harden melted down at the start of the fourth, thrown off by pressure defense from Jrue Holiday and doubles from other Bucks. He has been capital-g Great against the Bucks the rest of the year, so no reason to get too worked up, but he was horrendous in this game.

• With Harden in a bad spot and the Bucks shooting the lights out, Embiid was basically their only hope to try to steal this one if they were going to climb all the way back. But this was merely a so-so game for the big man, who didn't have his usual sharpness on the offensive end.

The difficulty of playing Brook Lopez is not that Embiid can't score on him, but that he has to do so without having many opportunities to put himself on the line. Lopez is big, strong, and tends not to put himself in jeopardy with bad reaches too often. Embiid is capable of beating him, no doubt, but he has to do so by punishing him for sagging in drop coverage and killing from the trail three spot and the elbow jumper.

Embiid did neither of those things on Sunday night — he finished the game 1/7 from three on mostly clean looks, rewarding Lopez and the Bucks for ignoring him out there. 

Beating Milwaukee in a playoff series would rely heavily on punishing the Bucks for dropping toward the paint and conceding open jumpers. Embiid has had a hellacious scoring season, but he was ordinary in this one. Wasn't going to cut it.

• I am fairly close to thinking that P.J. Tucker should spend most of a Bucks series on the bench, should the Sixers even get to that point. It feels noteworthy that Philadelphia's big comeback in their previous meeting came with Tucker out of the game due to an injury. He was brutal on offense in the previous game, and he was brutal on offense in this one.

It's bad enough that Tucker has struggled to make open threes even when he's given a significant cushion by the opponent, and then you add on his issues simply catching the ball to get into his shooting motion.  There are things Doc Rivers could do in order to try to minimize the impact of Giannis roaming off of Tucker, namely moving him to the weakside corner. But then you invite more pressure on Embiid as he receives a pass from Harden out of pick-and-rolls and creates a whole different problem to deal with. I'd just as soon not play him and hope somebody else can shoot well enough to mess up Milwaukee's defensive plan.

Unfortunately, all of the other options to play those minutes were horrible on Sunday night. Tobias Harris was mostly nonexistent in his first game back following an illness. Jalen McDaniels was bad on both ends, running himself out of position on defense while showcasing little-to-no touch on offense. And Georges Niang — who I wrote Sunday plays a sneaky huge role in this matchup — offered nothing on offense and continued to get beaten up on defense.

So, other than that, they're doing just fine.

• De'Anthony Melton is a great gauge for where the Sixers are at during a given game. When he's hitting threes and playing disciplined defense, they're tough to beat. When he's smoking transition layups and reaching in for no reason, they look vulnerable no matter who they're playing.

He missed a transition layup that didn't even hit the rim in the first half on Sunday night. Pretty clear which version of him they got. 

(The entire bench in this game, save for Reed, was bad. Don't want to kill Melton and Melton alone, he's just the most important of those guys.)

• If you're a "Doc Rivers is going to cost the Sixers a title" type person, I think you can drill down and look at some small details in this game with a raised eyebrow:

  1. Pulling Embiid with four fouls and trying to play with both Embiid and Harden on the bench.
  2. Pulling Paul Reed in the fourth quarter to play small ball against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
  3. Rarely using Embiid as the primary defender on Giannis
  4. Playing musical chairs with the rotation in the early part of the fourth quarter

Those are just a few examples. He was actively bad in this game and it led to the game unraveling.

The Ugly

• If you're panicking about the Sixers over this game, let the record show that they split the season series with Milwaukee. This game happening closer to the playoffs does not make it any more or less meaningful than the other games these two played.

• I thought Mike Budenholzer's challenge was a smart one in the second quarter, though I am a little surprised they outright gave Harden an offensive foul on that play rather than just wiping out the Middleton foul.

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