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April 04, 2019

Instant observations: Sixers fall to Bucks in early April thriller

Sixers NBA

The Sixers and Bucks played one of the most exciting early April NBA games in recent memory on Thursday night, but I'm sure that won't make anyone in Philadelphia feel better about their team coming out on the losing end. A wild night in South Philly ended in a 128-122 defeat for the Sixers, who still have some work to do to secure the East's No. 3 seed.

Here's what I saw, with more to come later.

The Good

• The rest of the team may not be at their best with the playoffs approaching, but JJ Redick is back in a good place. His shooting success could not have come at a better time, with the team banged up and looking for any source of offensive reliability.

Redick has certainly been that. What made his performance against Milwaukee especially impressive is that he was hitting shots despite getting a large share of the attention from their defense. The Bucks have made it quite clear they're willing to let Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons have acres of space on the perimeter, but they hounded Redick for a lot of the night. And it didn't really matter — he hit off-balance shots, had guys flying by him on pump fakes, and even did some damage as a cutter.

It's worth noting that the Eric Bledsoe ejection probably helped Redick a bit here. Though Milwaukee played reasonably good defense on him, Bledsoe is an important piece for them on the perimeter and at the point of attack. But when Redick is going like he was Thursday, it almost doesn't matter who else is out there.

• Joel Embiid was not his usual self on the offensive end of the floor. He looked like a guy who had been out of the lineup for a few games, obviously, forcing some tough shots and dribbling himself into trouble in traffic.

In spite of this being a rough outing, the man just kept coming, and he didn't let his struggles early on derail his game or his commitment to team offense. By the time the beginning of the fourth quarter rolled around, Embiid had already compiled a 30-point triple-double. How's that for rust?

Despite his rough outing on offense, the difference he made for this team defensively was and is hard to properly quantify. The numbers all show he is a dominant rim protector, a great defensive rebounder, and the lynchpin of this team. What they don't show are the plays he snuffs out before they get going, his positional awareness, and the fear factor he instills on the back end.

Do not take for granted that Embiid, a center,  can credibly step out and defend Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league's likely MVP and a matchup nightmare for pretty much every team in the league. He was basically the only guy who offered a roadblock for the Greek Freak, and he doesn't need to do much on offense to remind you he's the team's most important player by a mile.

• Mike Scott had been in a bit of funk coming into the game, but the edge he played with on Thursday reminds you of why they need him in the playoffs. He was the first guy (after Embiid) to go after Bledsoe when he chucked the ball at Embiid, he took some hard, professional fouls to make the Bucks earn points at the line, and he was cash money from beyond the arc.

• I downplayed his offensive performance a bit above, but Embiid's passing on Thursday night was better than we've seen it at pretty much any time in recent memory. This is the key to solving his turnover problem, in my mind. If he keeps his head on a swivel and hits the open man when doubles come, the Sixers will come closer to solving their turnover problem.

Embiid did much more than just "hit the open man" against Milwaukee, though. As it turns out, you can make some pretty difficult passes when you're taller and longer than everyone else on the floor, and Embiid made excellent reads to find corner shooters with difficult, angled passes.

This is how Embiid will reach his final form. We know he's capable of overpowering teams on the low block, but when he can take the attention that draws and use it to find the openings elsewhere, the Sixers are tough to stop.

(All this said, that crunch-time turnover from Embiid absolutely cannot happen. Ball security matters for all 48 minutes and he got careless down the stretch. It took away from what was otherwise a great return.)

The Bad

• I don't think there's a proper section for this sentence: the Sixers were playing their fourth-to-last game of the regular season on Thursday night, and they were doing things like letting Zhaire Smith play point guard. I know we regularly discuss how this team has been slapped together on the fly, but it is truly remarkable how little we actually know about what they're going to look like in the playoffs.

The Sixers should be trying to figure things out here — they're banged up and have a bench filled with underperforming veterans and mystery box rookies. Better to see how guys like Smith and Shake Milton hold up now than when the games actually matter. But still, this is quite unlike anything we're seeing with other teams that have serious playoff aspirations.

(By the way, I don't think Zhaire Smith has almost any idea what he's doing out there right now, nor does he have any right to. His teammates, mostly Ben Simmons, have to bark orders at him to make sure he's at the right spot on the floor. And yet despite what I said earlier this week, I'm not sure there's a case to keep him out of the rotation with Ennis out. The wing situation is that dire.)

• A lot of you are going to moan and complain about Embiid continuing to take and miss a lot of threes. I've said it before, but I would rather he continue to fire away over and over again and trust the work he has put in as a shooter than watch him try to beat guys off of the dribble over and over again.

He can't just camp out in and around the lane all night. That's not an efficient or turnover-friendly style way to play basketball. If that's what you're expecting, I would suggest you go back and watch Hardwood Classics on NBATV, because the three-point line is not going anywhere. Grow up, Peter Pan.

• There is a lot of Richaun Holmes in Jonah Bolden, and I don't mean that as a compliment. When he ends up in the right place at the right time, he has a tendency to make some loud, spectacular plays. But those plays are too few and far between. More often than not, his energy gets the best of him, and he doesn't really think through what he's doing as he's doing it.

Perfect example: on a possession in the third quarter, Bolden rose up in traffic to collect a defensive rebound. Instead of just grabbing the ball — he was probably the only guy within two feet of the ball when he rose up — he slapped one arm at it and tipped it out to the perimeter as if it were an offensive possession. The Bucks collected the ball and ended up nailing a three seconds later.

You can't afford those sort of mistakes in the playoffs or in close games in general. Young big men typically have a pretty rude learning curve, but some of his mistakes are just silly and avoidable.

• Far too many games lately where Tobias Harris has basically been a passenger along for the ride. He's not influencing the game enough on offense, and he has proven over his time here so far that he's not capable of making up for that on the defensive end if he doesn't have it going.

There has been a lot of talk around the city about whether Jimmy Butler is worth a max contract, but have we seen Harris prove that either? He may be a clean fit on offense, but they don't pay tens of millions of dollars to guys for simply being a clean fit.

• Ben Simmons might be one of the most versatile defenders in the league, and he has absolutely no chance guarding Giannis. Absolutely none. The guy takes him down to the low block and just throws him into a dumpster. 

The Ugly

• Early on, the Bucks were having their way and Joel Embiid was struggling to get going on both ends of the court. After a made three from Giannis early in the first quarter, a skirmish between Embiid and Eric Bledsoe changed the complexion of the game.

If the Sixers have an advantage over some of the other contenders at the top of the East, it's that they seem to have a collection of guys (okay maybe it's just Embiid) who are good at getting under the skin of opponents. You certainly can't count on getting guys ejected, but being a master antagonist is absolutely a skill, and a super valuable one if you use it right.

I'm not sure how useful that skill is going to be if Shake Milton is the first wing off of the bench for Philadelphia to start the playoffs, but you take your victories where you can get them when your team is slapped together on the fly.

• The Bucks should have to pay a fine every time they put on those awful yellow jerseys. Horrendous.

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