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March 05, 2023

Instant observations: James Harden leads huge fourth-quarter rally vs. Bucks

38 points from James Harden led a huge Sixers comeback win over the Bucks in Milwaukee.

The Sixers staged a brilliant fourth-quarter comeback to snap a 16-game winning streak for the Bucks, winning 133-130 on the road to pick up their signature win of the season.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• You would have thought the Sixers were losing this game by 35 points the way people were discussing it in the middle of Grayson Allen's heater in the middle of the third quarter. It was not a pleasant experience from a Sixers perspective at that point, I will give you that, but somehow people have not learned that the Sixers are able to bounce back after tough runs and pull themselves back into games. Surprise — they did it once again on Saturday night. 

A big piece of that was Philadelphia simply taking care of the basketball. While they did a lot of things poorly at times in this game, they practiced good ball security throughout the night and at least gave themselves chances to score, even if many of those chances came on tough shots and broken possessions.

The key to going on a run to open the fourth quarter, though, was something Doc Rivers has been reluctant to do: star staggering. He rode Embiid and Harden both a bit too long in the first half, staggering almost on accident after an all-bench group was getting worked to open the second quarter, calling on Harden to stabilize the game. Rivers would not make the same mistake in the second half.

Quick detour...

• In the early moments of the game, it looked like Harden was ready to take on all comers, nailing a pair of early threes that included a shot that he canned from the halfcourt logo. He looked much like the guy who willed Philadelphia back into the game in their home opener last October, inspiring hope that this would be a big night.

It went off of the rails a bit from there. Milwaukee does not make it easy for you to get into what you want, boasting good-to-great defenders all over the floor and point of attack players (Jrue Holiday, Jevon Carter) who stop you before you can begin to set up shop. The offense the Sixers ran — or more accurately, didn't run — in the second quarter of this game is simply not going to get it done against teams like the Bucks. I'm all for the occasional, "Cook his ass, James" possession, but when the Sixers devolve into nothing but disconnected, isolation basketball for several minutes at a time, it's time to switch something up.

Brought in at the start of the fourth quarter to hold down the fort without Joel Embiid, Harden finally found his balance. With Georges Niang playing sidekick and punishing the Bucks every time they left him open, Harden seemed to make the right read on basically every single possession to open the fourth quarter, flowing like water based on how Milwaukee attacked him. Double teamed? That pass is going to an open shooter. Favorable matchup? Harden is cooking him. And a bit of individual shotmaking certainly helped, with Harden hitting a tough stepback three early in Philadelphia's run to put some wind in their sails.

By the time Joel Embiid had checked back into the game, the Sixers were within four points with 7:33 to play. And they did not have to get there through one guy simply carrying the offense. In fact, it was the opposite, with Harden keeping other guys involved while making some big plays himself.

• There are demons for Harden to shed in big moments in the playoffs, no doubt, but nobody should doubt this guy's regular-season credentials and production. Harden looked stuck in a funk that he would never work himself out of midway through this one, stuck in mud against one of the best defensive teams in the league. But he kept whittling away, whittling away, and whittling away, and suddenly, the matchups he wanted were there at the right moment. Deep into the game, playing his third big-minute game in four nights, Harden was beating guys off of the dribble and absolutely shrugging off defenders who didn't come correct, putting Khris Middleton on his hip and going all the way to the hoop.

I have talked up Philadelphia's resilience this season but don't think I've given proper credit to Harden for his role in that. So often, he's the guy playing the critical role on the comeback front, either as the scorer or the table setter. Great player.

• I get that they have to do it in the playoffs, but if you guys think this is the same team with the same problems as in years past, I simply can't help you. Enjoy this ride or find a healthier hobby for your mental health.

• What a tale of two halves for Georges Niang. He was as bad as it gets in the first half, and was absolutely essential to their comeback in the fourth quarter of this game. 

It feels like we are in the "Pick on Georges Niang" portion of the season and that is true if you're referring to how the fanbase feels about him and how teams are attacking the Sixers with Niang on the floor. I think Niang has been a huge contributor to this team all season, hitting an endless string of big shots that helped push games over the top or pull them back into a game. Bobby Portis doesn't need much for his eyes to grow wide with excitement, but the prospect of attacking Niang was a whole different level.

But this is a matchup where Niang could end up proving essential for the Sixers. Giannis Antetokounmpo loves to roam away from his man to junk things up in the middle of the floor, a strategy that allowed him to help off P.J. Tucker and destroy what Philadelphia wanted to do early in this game. Getting Niang out there and cooking blew up exactly what Giannis and the Bucks wanted to do. Make note of it for a potential playoff matchup.

• The best version of Tyrese Maxey is the guy who gets to the rim and puts pressure on the officials, leveraging his speed in both the halfcourt and in transition. There have been times this season where he has allowed a tough whistle to influence his play style a bit, but mercifully, this game was not one of them.

He had a quieter second half, but thought we saw enough from him in this game to be heartened. 

• Jalen McDaniels going from playing on the Charlotte Hornets to looking right at home in this game with Tucker and Harris out is a good sign for him. He hasn't been especially good recently, but this was a big spot, and he played his role well. Breaking news: playing good defenders makes your defense better.

• This is a tough matchup for Joel Embiid, and I don't think he was put in the best position to succeed. He put up 31-6-10 anyway. That's the sort of player we're dealing with.

The big gripe from me other than the staggering problem we'll get to below: I don't think it's a wise plan to have Embiid covering Brook Lopez in this matchup. It's tougher to do something different with Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker out, as I think both of those guys would be fine holding up against the bigger Lopez if the Bucks wanted to throw it down on the block.

Even still, there are some stylistic quirks in a matchup with the Bucks that you have to contend with, and I don't think the Sixers looked prepared to deal with them. Having Embiid on Brook Lopez defensively is not only a waste of time and resources, I would argue it actually hurts your cause by stretching Embiid out and having him fly around the floor with the rest of them, causing more problems than it solves. And despite Embiid having good possessions on Giannis Antetokounmpo throughout the game, not to mention a decent track record against him, Rivers and Dan Burke insisted on lining up that way anyway. Certainly a choice.

With Embiid's impact on defense muted to an extent, the value of his offense was going to matter more, and his shot and finishing eluded him at times. But down the stretch, Embiid kept the Sixers close not by launching jumpers, but by getting downhill and attacking off of Harden's hot hand. Several times in the guts of the game, Embiid went careening hard into multiple Bucks players, forcing them to throw their bodies at him and take fouls, with Embiid adding some important points at the line.

And of course, he hit the big three that essentially put this game to rest:

As a decisionmaker, he was a huge part of the ball security thing we discussed up top. Embiid used pass feints to ward off doubles, then hit open shooters when Milwaukee converged hard, finding a balance between hunting his shot and sharing the wealth.

Could this be the year he finally breaks through? I suppose we'll find out.

The Bad

• The defining problem with the Sixers' defense this year has been overhelping off shooters. It has been a constant, it has been annoying, and it is showing no signs of stopping. Bad defenders have done it, good defenders have done it, basically all of their defenders have done it. You shouldn't expect it to end in the playoffs, and it will be part of their obituary if they flame out early.

It's one thing for Philadelphia to send help on drivers in desperate situations, but it's infuriating to watch them leap away from good shooters to help out on drivers that have not yet gotten to dangerous spots.

• I am literally the guy who wrote the book (well, article) on properly distributing blame to Doc Rivers. Here's the complaint that ranks at the very top of the list — he still isn't staggering his stars, and he's just making life more difficult on himself and the team as a result of how he's subbing games. It's one of those things that is so obvious and so easy to do, and maybe he'll do it in the playoffs, but it simply does not happen enough on a night-to-night basis. You would think he would come into a game against the hottest team in basketball with that on his mind. Nope!

The Sixers did try to limit their all-bench or non-star lineups in this one, but you can take it a step further. You don't ever have to do it. Pull Harden with four minutes or so left in the first and third quarters, and then bring him back. Simple stuff. They're leaving money on the table.

• The Bucks were happy to give P.J. Tucker wide-open threes the entire night (well, as long as he was out there). Tucker did absolutely nothing with the opportunity.

The missed shots are bad on their own, but the domino effect is much worse. Teams feel emboldened to cheat further and further away from the corner, junking up the paint where Embiid and Harden need to live for this team to be great. 

The Ugly

• Paul Reed has discipline issues that are all his own, but he picked up a foul for a perfectly clean block on Giannis in the first half of this game.

• Could make the case that the injuries to Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker that knocked them out of the game are more important than anything that happened in this game. This is an absolutely brutal stretch for Philadelphia, and even if these are day-to-day knocks that they shake off relatively quickly, it would hurt to even miss a game or two. Philadelphia doesn't need to overtax the stars more than they already will.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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