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April 02, 2023

What's left to learn in final Sixers vs. Bucks meeting of the season?

The Sixers' opportunity to pass the Bucks in the standings has all but disappeared as we reach the final week of the season, but a meeting between Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a special occasion. Philadelphia and Milwaukee will go at it one final time on Sunday night, and we'll get another look at what this matchup looks like at close to full strength.

It may be the last time we see them this season unless they both make the conference finals. Here's what I'm watching for.

How will Philly use Joel Embiid defensively?

Philadelphia's offensive explosion in the fourth quarter was the highlight of their comeback victory over Milwaukee. A shift in defensive tactics was just as important.

Stretch bigs have historically given Embiid a few problems, which was a "couldn't" problem as a young player due to conditioning and a "wouldn't" problem at times (as seen in a loss to the Celtics, with Embiid uninterested in closing out on Blake Griffin). And Brook Lopez has fashioned himself into a productive stretch big over time, which poses very real challenges for the Sixers and Embiid. Philadelphia's defensive integrity relies pretty heavily on keeping Embiid near the paint to clean up dribble penetration. If and when he is attached to Lopez, the Bucks can short-circuit that by forcing him to cover pick-and-pops.

At the start of Philadelphia's March win over the Bucks, Milwaukee did just that, and the matchup stats show that plainly. Lopez was 4/4 with Embiid as the closest defender, with a few of those makes coming on plays where Embiid was forced to close hard to the three-point line before Lopez dipped inside the arc for two points. While Embiid is capable of closing space quickly, asking him to do so on a consistent, play-to-play basis is a recipe for wearing him down.

The Sixers' big chess move in the second halves of games has been moving Embiid onto questionable shooters, sagging him toward the paint as a roamer. That's a different proposition against the Bucks, whose most questionable shooter is Giannis Antetokounmpo, their driving force. Embiid can't be used as an off-ball roamer cheating off of the corners and instead is tasked with bodying up Giannis as he attacks from the middle of the floor. But Embiid defending Giannis has been a recipe that has often worked for Philly, and it did once again in early March — Giannis shot just 2/8 with Embiid as the closest defender, per NBA tracking data, with seven of those eight attempts coming in the second half. Who better to meet Giannis at the rim than Philadelphia's biggest, strongest player?

There are a couple of considerations beyond matchup numbers, of course, namely the physical challenge of defending Giannis and Embiid's ability to avoid foul trouble in that matchup. Asking the big man to take on a challenge of that magnitude for a half is a different proposition for a full game, not to mention a full series. This is evidenced by how the Bucks use Giannis within their system, almost exclusively deploying him as a roamer rather than asking him to put out fires as a man defender. There's a delicate balance when trying to figure out how to leverage a two-way player's defensive gifts without accumulating so much wear-and-tear that it hurts their offensive output.

Niang vs. Tucker

Forgive me if this is overstating things, but this may be the single most important matchup for Niang in the playoffs. If these two teams were to meet in the postseason, Niang could very well swing the series in one direction or another. 

With the aforementioned Giannis roamer problem, the Bucks could kneecap P.J. Tucker's effectiveness in a playoff series. If Giannis cheats toward the paint and Tucker can't make open threes, the Sixers' paths to score shrink, and it's unlikely he can offer enough defensively to make up for the negative impact. Niang is a much different proposition, someone who can't be left alone and can hit shots with a much shorter release window. This is an oversimplification, but Niang's viability in this matchup has been one of the best indicators of Philadelphia's success. He was a bit player in their home opener loss (0/1 in just eight minutes of action), and turned in two great shooting efforts in Philly's wins over the Bucks. 

The tighter Milwaukee has to hug Philadelphia's shooters, the more space there is to operate in the middle of the floor for the Harden/Embiid combo — Harden's improved midrange game and Embiid's dominance from that area of the floor gives Philly a chance to crush Lopez in drop coverage. While I am a skeptic of Niang in the playoffs, this may be the one matchup where he really matters. 

Is Khris Middleton exploitable?

There's no need to go overboard on a one-game sample, and the Khris Middleton we see on Sunday night might not be the game guy the Sixers see if they see Milwaukee in the later rounds of the playoffs. That being said, part of Milwaukee's title ceiling rests on him being better than he has been in the 31 games he has played this season.

He wasn't the only guy who got carved up by James Harden in Philadelphia's 48-point quarter in primetime (Jae Crowder looked washed), but he was among the more noteworthy weak links on the perimeter for the Bucks in that early-March showdown. Middleton's issues were multi-faceted — he had some issues containing the ball when he was the on-ball defender, and he was a ball-watcher away from the play, leading to some clean looks at the hoop for Philly's shooters. An example of the latter:

Both of these are potential problems for the Bucks. In bench looks where Harden is more likely to switch-hunt than run pick-and-roll actions, Middleton needs to be able to hold up in space. And historically, the Bucks have been a heavy drop coverage team against pick-and-rolls (though they've been more flexible in recent seasons) in an effort to force teams into tough two-point shots above all else. It can be tough for on-ball defenders, who need to fight over screens without fouling, but it should be a fairly simple act of pinching middle without losing the Sixers' shooters while off-ball.

Middleton is such an important piece for Milwaukee because they have a trio of high-level two-way guys (Giannis, Lopez, and Holiday) in their top group. Historically, Middleton has been about an average or perhaps slightly below-par defender, which is fine if the fourth guy in the lineup isn't exploitable. But if Middleton is a hunting spot for Philadelphia, the Bucks may have to think harder about the fifth player in that lineup, and how much of an offensive sacrifice they're willing to make to avoid having a second potential target on the floor in crunch time. Jevon Carter is an excellent defender with good individual splits, for example, but Milwaukee's offense has been far below average in most minutes he has played this season.

Even if these teams give this "last week of the season" effort and energy, I'm still excited to see one last meeting between two giants ahead of the playoffs. Buckle up.

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