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October 26, 2023

Instant Observations: Sixers fall to new-look Bucks in opener

Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid starred for the Sixers, but Damian Lillard's Bucks debut stole the show.

The Sixers opened their season Thursday night in Milwaukee against the new-look Bucks, falling by a score of 118-117 in a game 1 thriller.

Here’s what jumped out as the Sixers’ 2023-24 campaign got underway:

Early rotation decisions and a bench star emerges

36-year old Danny Green was one of Nick Nurse’s first two substitutions Thursday night. This may seem puzzling as Green is a shell of his former self athletically, and it’s unclear if he has what it takes to remain a viable rotation player at this stage of his career.

Nurse spoke in the preseason about the value he places on a player’s knowledge of the team’s defensive schemes. Even with his reduced physical capabilities, there is no questioning Green’s intellect on the defensive end. Additionally, Nurse and Green have a familiarity from their shared time in Toronto that likely adds to Nurse’s comfort playing the veteran.

Green’s main competition for those minutes, Danuel House Jr., only played in the team’s final preseason game. Perhaps his lack of experience under Nurse played a part in his lack of a run.

Jaden Springer was given the first genuine rotation minutes of his NBA career and made good on Nurse’s confidence. Springer had two impressive early blocks, flashing the tremendous athleticism that makes him such an intriguing prospect.

Kelly Oubre Jr. was the other earliest substitution, and he helped keep the Sixers afloat early with his scoring. Oubre Jr. knocked down a couple of first-quarter triples, came off a Joel Embiid screen to score at the rim, and made a pair of free throws. He continued to provide an offensive punch in the second half, and was the real star of the second unit. Oubre Jr. finished with 27 points.

Damian Lillard’s second-quarter avalanche and the Sixers’ response

Lillard went nuts in the second quarter after the Sixers made inroads on Milwaukee’s early lead. It was a total takeover by the Bucks' new lead guard, who totaled 17 points in the second quarter alone. His dynamic shot-making and self-creation, in turn, were too much to handle for the Sixers, who did their best to throw as many looks at him as they could. The combination of Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo is already proving incredibly difficult to cover.

The Sixers, very much on the ropes at one point, were able to fight back thanks to a flurry of shot-making and an impressive defensive stretch that coincided with Lillard’s time on the bench.

Tobias Harris puts in a solid showing

It was a good go for Harris in his debut under Nurse, who has said he believes Harris has untapped potential as a scorer. In the preseason, Harris thrived as a play finisher but struggled mightily to generate good looks for himself or others. He was able to create for himself against Milwaukee’s typically stout defense.

Tyrese Maxey, scorer aficionado

With every passing game in Maxey’s career, it becomes less clear how individual players are supposed to defend him. Maxey’s combination of truly elite quickness and burst, high-level jump-shooting, and impressive finishing around the rim makes him a foolproof perimeter scorer. He was perhaps more responsible than any other player for keeping the Sixers in the game. His scoring wasn’t just effective, it felt timely as well – he has always had a knack for scoring at the right times.

Joel Embiid scores at will early, but struggles with turnovers and late-game scoring

Embiid was his typical, assertive, and efficient self as a scorer, though he uncharacteristically struggled when at the free-throw line for much of the game, and turned the ball over far too often. The Bucks sent double-teams that consistently frustrated Embiid, who dribbled or passed into turnovers at an alarming rate.

Later in the game, Embiid’s scoring was not as easy. The Bucks successfully showed him crowds on the touch down the stretch, and he struggled mightily in the fourth quarter.

Transition defense shines

Against any team with a player like Antetokounmpo, Nurse explained after the preseason finale last week, pristine transition defense is a must. The Sixers had that today, effectively forming walls against Antetokounmpo’s fastbreak drives. P.J. Tucker took a beating over the course of the game, but did so for a good cause. Embiid’s rim protection was outstanding, per the usual.

Sixers lose the game down the stretch

After a more than valiant effort to get back into the game, and at one point hold a lead, the Sixers fell victim to a massive Bucks run that began with two three-pointers from Brook Lopez and Jae Crowder, which was also aided by a few controversial officiating decisions and fueled by a few key defensive stands.

The Sixers showed one final burst down the stretch, cutting the lead to two on a few occasions in the game’s final moments, but Lillard’s marksmanship was too much to overcome in the end.

Up next

A day off to travel north of the border to face Nurse's former team, the Toronto Raptors, on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET.