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April 24, 2021

Instant observations: Undermanned Sixers routed by Bucks as Eastern Conference battle tightens

The Sixers looked like a team missing their two most important players on Saturday, falling to the Bucks in a 132-94 loss that brings the top of the Eastern Conference much closer than it has been in a while. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• There's no faulting the defensive effort the Sixers put in through the first 24 minutes of this game. Down their two best and most important players, Philadelphia threw a bunch of different looks at the Bucks in order to keep them unsettled. That was certainly the right call.

Going to a small-ball look right out of the chute, the Sixers were almost exclusively in a 2-3 zone for the opening stretch of the game, closing out on Milwaukee's shooters quick enough to avoid getting burned. The small-ball look also happened to be a good way to combat the Bucks on the other end — with five shooters stationed around the perimeter, Brook Lopez was forced into a lot of tough decisions and a lot of long closeout attempts, which is the exact scenario he doesn't want to be in.

When Dwight Howard checked into the game, he seemed to have trouble finding his footing in the zone look, so the Sixers went back to a normal-ish base D and overachieved in that grouping, too.

A lot of the credit for their success (at least for the first two quarters) belongs to Matisse Thybulle. The second-year wing did not get the start against Milwaukee, but he was a destructive force whenever he was on the floor, darting off of assignments to slap the ball away from drivers and ignite Philly fast breaks, which were some of the only clean looks they were able to get all night. His steal/block numbers undersell how much chaos he created against the Bucks.

(Some of that chaos, mind you, was for his own team. Thybulle must think he's a much more capable passer than he actually is, because it feels like every pass he makes on the move is an attempt to channel awkward-angle geniuses like Jason Kidd.)

Once Milwaukee started turning it on in the second half...well, that's a different story.

• Spending much energy on Tyrese Maxey's afternoon would be the equivalent of celebrating the Titanic's deck chairs, but his ability to get to the free-throw line is one thing worth tracking and perhaps even celebrating. With Maxey relying a bit less on his floater these days, there are far more possessions where he gets all the way to the rim and draws contact. He's still a rookie who gets little respect from the officials, but it doesn't change how important it is for him to add this dimension to his game.

The young point guard also should have picked up a couple more assists against the Bucks, but teammates let him down when he pushed the pace and found shooters flanking him on the wing. Very much a process > results game for the rookie.

• The Sixers got good first halves from Shake Milton and Dwight Howard. Not much to add beyond that.

The Bad

• I don't have any problem with the shorthanded Sixers letting it fly early and often against the Bucks. When you're at a talent disadvantage, one of the easiest ways to try to make that up is to beat the opponent with math.

Unfortunately, you have to actually make shots for that strategy to work, and the Sixers opened the game with an almost unfathomable 2/19 mark from beyond the arc. And I think calling this a "strategy" is also giving Philadelphia a bit more credit than they deserve. They simply could not create off-the-dribble for most of Saturday's game, so they didn't have much choice except to toss up any reasonably open jumper they could get.

It's not exactly a secret that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are important to how this team operates, but it's pretty remarkable how one-dimensional a lot of the guys are that will be counted on in the rotation come playoff time. The Sixers were so predictable on offense that Milwaukee was giddily jumping passing lanes above the break and walking in for dunks and layups in transition, unafraid that gambling could be punished by this Sixers team.

• You would be well within your right to point out that Tobias Harris was at the top of the scouting report for Milwaukee in Saturday's game, with the Bucks able to throw anyone and every one of their best players at him. Understandable that a second/third option might struggle when asked to be the focal point of an undermanned team.

I do think the Bucks are a bad matchup for Harris specifically, though, because forcing switches is not going to bear fruit the way you'd expect against a lot of other Eastern Conference playoff teams. Milwaukee is plenty comfortable letting Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday defend basically anybody in front of them, so Harris' desire to cycle through matchups is basically just wasting time against the Bucks.

Keeping the focus on this game alone, Harris simply didn't offer much on either end of the floor. His limitations as a defender are a lot more obvious when he has to be one of the team leaders, rather than a guy who will be celebrated for good individual possessions and (mostly) ignored when he makes a mistake.

• This would have been a great time for Seth Curry and/or Danny Green to step up and try to give the Sixers a fighting chance. Curry at least gave the Sixers a third-quarter flurry to pull them back into a game they had no business winning. Green's afternoon was downright gross in comparison, featuring some of the most uninspired basketball he has played all year.

Shooting issues aside, one thing you can usually say about Green is that he remains locked in on defense no matter how tough the assignment or game situation is. Unfortunately for Philly, that wasn't the case against the Bucks. On one particularly egregious possession, he fell asleep to open the set and had his back turned when Bryn Forbes canned a three that he could make in his sleep.

There were also some plays where you could see the strain of being shorthanded impacting Green specifically. If Green ever decides to throw a hook lob pass again this season — and one that I think was no-look to boot — someone should hit him over the head with one of those giant ACME hammers the Looney Tunes use. On one hand, what was he thinking? On the other, what choice did he have? There was a stretch of this game where the Sixers tried to post up an aging Dwight Howard multiple times. You might as well try some crazy shit, I guess.

• This was not an especially bad performance from Mike Scott in a season that has featured plenty of those. In fact, his mere presence on the floor was helpful at times because it dragged Milwaukee defenders away from the paint.

But it's a sad state of affairs that he's the best Doc Rivers feels they have to offer in terms of backup forwards. It's sad that they couldn't execute a deal for better depth ahead of the deadline. Phoenix picked up Torrey Craig from the Bucks for nothing more than cash considerations, and he has offered a very good Suns team more in 19 games than Scott has offered the Sixers in the last season-and-a-half.

• We can point to the Sixers' soft closing schedule, the pair of Bucks-Nets meetings coming up, and the fact that they should be healthier than this as a case that they're still in good position to get the No. 1 seed. But this was an important week for Philadelphia, and for reasons in and out of their control, they faceplanted. Instead of having a cushion down the stretch, they now have to outplay the Nets over the closing weeks to get the top seed, and the Bucks suddenly have a bit more incentive to turn it on

The Ugly

• Philadelphia's handling of Joel Embiid this week is some of the worst health management you'll see this season. Rather than resting him on the second half of a back-to-back when they already knew they wouldn't have Ben Simmons, they chose to try to have their cake and eat it too. So Embiid played in Thursday night's one-sided affair, picked up a shoulder knock in that game, and ended up missing Saturday's game that he could have (potentially) been well-rested for.

It's not like this is the first year they've had to think about Joel Embiid's health and wellness. Even if it was, the way they chose to go about this makes zero sense on paper.

While we're on the subject, why bother playing Tobias Harris in the game? He revealed he has been dealing with a bone bruise in his knee, and while Rivers said the other night that they need to get him back into a flow before the playoffs, what they really need is for him to be as close to 100 percent as possible. Not like he gave them much against the Bucks.

• Shake Milton has picked up some of the worst/dumbest fouls of the season over the last month. He added to the collection with a push-off on an inbounds play in the dying moments of the first quarter, a mistake that gifted Milwaukee a chance to score to finish the opening period.

They were fortunate not to get burned for an extra two points. Milton is finding ways to pull errors out of thin air recently, which doesn't bode well for the playoffs.

• There is almost no way to miss when Tony Brothers is officiating a game. It also would have been nice to see at least half of the controversial calls made shown on replay, but that was beyond the scope of the broadcast on Saturday. Worst of both worlds. 

I am not bold enough to claim that complaints from one team about the officials are always correct. But when you give out four technical fouls to a single team in a half and none in the other direction, that should make you think about whether or not they have a point.

• There have been years where I think people criticizing the NBA product have been offbase or don't really know what they want in the first place. That is not the case this year. Time after time, week after week, game after game, we have had to watch supposedly marquee games where one or both teams are ravaged by injuries, health issues, or perhaps a combination of the two. The condensed schedule on top of the health and safety protocols have created a ghastly season for fans.

Half the fun of the regular season is waiting for these big matchups and then reflecting on what they tell us about a potential playoff meeting. Six matchups with the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, the top competition in the conference, have told us absolutely nothing. They were not high-level entertainment, they didn't give anyone useful film to study, there's no debate to be had. These were soulless victories and losses.

It's a bummer, because this should be the sort of game you look forward to all week leading up to it. If you have found it hard to be truly invested in the league this year, I get it.

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