March 17, 2021
The Sixers squandered a terrific defensive effort with a brutal offensive showing against the Milwaukee Bucks, falling 109-105 in a second-half collapse that would make last year's team feel at home.
Here's what I saw.
• Of all people, it was Furkan Korkmaz who got a crack at the last shot in regulation for Philadelphia. "Furky from Turkey with the jerky" has been trusted to take big shots before, and he did not let the Sixers down when it mattered most:
When he first arrived in the league, I can't imagine Korkmaz keeping his feet in bounds, let alone having the composure to dribble himself into a rhythm before canning the most important shot of the fourth.
• Credit where it's due: the Sixers are finding a way to make it work on defense without Joel Embiid on the back end. That's a tall order, and we went over some gigantic defensive concerns coming into the game that the Sixers made seem trivial on Wednesday night.
They did an excellent job embracing the Giannis assignment as a team (at least for the first three quarters). Ben Simmons was the guy who got the early reps against him, and Simmons did not let Giannis overwhelm him with strength as he has at times in the past, moving Antetokounmpo off his spot enough that it threw off Milwaukee's timing on entry passes.
There was help from all over the floor — digs from Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, and Tobias Harris — that either poked the ball loose or crowded Giannis enough that he had to force a tough pass through traffic.
They still showed high a lot against pick-and-rolls (even those involving Giannis and Khris Middleton), though that wasn't a hard-and-fast rule, with the Sixers using more drop coverage in the second half, often to their detriment. When they were in their base coverage, the Sixers did a lot of great work on the back end rotating to the paint so that the two-time MVP Antetokounmpo had no chance to catch and dunk.
Before the whole team wore down late, I thought we saw something important in the Simmons-Giannis matchup. The physical gap between them that allowed Giannis to win the battle in the past seems to have closed considerably. There were a ton of possessions in the halfcourt where Antetoukounmpo tried to drop his shoulder and post him up, and Simmons did not budge, which even forced a travel on one second-half possession.
Notably, that did not end up holding up in overtime, but you're not going to play any overtime games in the second half of back-to-backs in the playoffs. Giannis deserves his props for rallying in a big way while Philadelphia wore down, but I saw more to like than I did to dislike over the 53 minutes they played.
• Nobody is loving the Dwight Howard renaissance more than the newly-paying customers at the Wells Fargo Center. And nobody is enjoying having fans back in the building as much as Howard — this is the guy who was gesturing to invisible fans in an empty arena to start the year, naturally. He has been a showman so far, gesturing to the crowd to get louder whenever they start to cheer for him.
Howard has made it easy for the Philly crowd to embrace him with his play coming out of the All-Star break. He owns some of the credit for their defensive toughness without Embiid, but he has contributed all over the floor. The glass crashing is consistent, he's a lob threat whenever he's on the floor, and as we have gone over many times in this space, the guy just plays hard all the time. Sometimes that means living with some stupid fouls as a result of his aggression, most of the time lately it has meant watching him fly through the air, splitting bodies to haul in rebounds.
He has been an A1 teammate as well, and selfishly, he has offered us media folk some terrific quotes on top of all of that. Not too shabby.
• Philadelphia's defense against Giannis was empowered whenever they had Matisse Thybulle on the floor. Thybulle gave Khris Middleton fits while defending him, giving the Sixers the option to use whoever and whatever they wanted on Milwaukee's top option.
While his usual brand of madness was scarce on Wednesday night, Thybulle channeled that energy to play some of the best one-on-one defense he has probably played all year, even switching onto Antetokounmpo at times throughout the night, trusting that good positioning and help from his teammates would be enough to get the job done. More often than not, it was, and there's a powerful lesson for the second-year wing in this sort of performance. It wasn't a loud game, but it was a very good one.
Now if he could just do, well, just about anything on offense.
• Danny Green had what felt like a quietly great shooting game. In fact, as I'm writing this blurb, I already feel bad about how little time I spent on his performance. He was nails from beyond the arc, made a number of terrific defensive plays as a helper, and again, is absolutely fearless when the ball comes his way at any moment in time.
If he is not packaged in a trade for a bigger piece, the Sixers will be fortunate to have him in the playoffs, even if the path there is absolutely maddening at times.
• As good as Philadelphia's defense was for most of the night, their halfcourt offense was as bad if not worse for most of it. They had a comfortable lead for as long as they did only because the Bucks stunk it up.
I don't think anyone is blameless in this scenario. Tobias Harris was below his usual standard this season, over-dribbling a bit after some early buckets went down from the mid-post, which is something Jrue Holiday absolutely punished him for. Seth Curry's shooting touch was simply not there all night, and injury was added to insult when he went down in a heap during a transition play midway through the fourth, hobbling back to the locker room with the help of trainer Kevin Johnson.
Admittedly, the Sixers would have had a tough time getting much use out of it with the Bucks just parking a couple of guys in the paint at basically all times, but I'm surprised the Sixers didn't try to use Simmons as a roller more, nearly dying on the hill of him as the lead ballhandler. We'll get back to him in a moment.
• I want to dwell on Tobias Harris for a second here, because this is the sort of performance that Doc Rivers explicitly railed against when he arrived here and that we've thought is a thing of the past. Meandering possessions where he dominates the ball, burns the clock, and puts up a contested jumper are not the way forward, and I believe he knows that.
They are especially not going to get it done when you're up against a defender like Holiday, who has put the shackles on some of the league's best offensive players over the years.
Unfortunately, he is and was still one of Philadelphia's best halfcourt options. Green and Curry are not creators at the halfcourt that you can rely on for too much, and Shake Milton is showing you over and over again that he can't be relied on to be one of your main creators. It's a team filled with secondary and tertiary players that desperately misses their MVP candidate and franchise player.
• Let me reiterate something I have said a lot lately — asking Shake Milton to be the guy carrying the second unit himself is too much. Even if they do not go out and get a guy, I think they have to invest some time trying to develop Tyrese Maxey, because they don't have any sort of dynamism in the halfcourt. They might have to live with some short-term pain with Maxey, and I still doubt he'll be playoff-ready in any case, but something has to change with this group.
• This is not an excuse for how things went off of the rails, but the Sixers certainly looked like a team out of gas in the fourth quarter. On the second half of a back-to-back, that tends to happen, and that doesn't make it any less frustrating to watch play out.
• As good as his defense was throughout this game, this was basically a perfect display of how teams might put the screws to Ben Simmons (and thus the Sixers) in the playoffs. Milwaukee loaded up the paint and walled him off from ever getting there, and he had absolutely no answer for it for most of the night.
Simmons had four turnovers within the first seven minutes of the game, partly because the Bucks showed him absolutely no respect as a scorer and played the passing lanes over and over again.
To his credit, Rivers did try to work around the problem with lineups at times, going to the small-ball look at multiple points in the game. It worked well enough in the first half, but they abandoned it quickly in the second half, with a blown assignment or two giving the Bucks clear shots at the rim. That was enough for the head coach.
When Simmons wasn't turning the ball over, he was providing missed shot after missed shot at the rim, and Milwaukee's success getting in his way never once prompted him to try to play a different way. And that's sort of the looming question about this guy and this team — what are the Sixers going to do if and when teams get him out of his comfort zone? How will that ripple across the rest of the team? Can he find ways to get them out of the muck when it matters?
Here's how screwed up this made things in the end — the Sixers were running pick-and-pops with Furkan Korkmaz and Dwight Howard in overtime. That is absolutely goddamn ridiculous.
There has to be at least something resembling a backup plan this far into his career. It could get real ugly when it counts. Yes, he should have Embiid when it does, but that only heightens any concern about issues in halfcourt execution.
(In completely unrelated news, James Harden put up 40-15-10 in a win for Brooklyn without Durant or Irving available.)
• Look, I'm just happy I don't have people yelling at me to fire the coach when one of these games happens now.
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