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November 09, 2021

Instant observations: Sixers fall short vs. Bucks despite big Tyrese Maxey performance

The Sixers hung tough against Milwaukee all night on the second half of a back-to-back, but a 31-point performance from Tyrese Maxey was not enough to avoid a 118-109 loss. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Tyrese Maxey's coming out party as a professional came early last season with the Sixers short on bodies, as the rookie put on a show as part of a seven-man rotation that lost to Denver. With the Sixers in another sticky situation as a result of the health and safety protocols, Maxey came ready to rock on Tuesday night, lighting up the Milwaukee Bucks in one of the best offensive stretches we have seen from him so far.

The second-year guard has not lacked confidence as a shooter lately, and the results are starting to catch up with the work he has put in to improve beyond the arc. Maxey's first quarter was highlighted by a barrage of threes on very different looks — a three coming out of a DHO with Andre Drummond, a catch-and-shoot look in the corner —the likes of which would change his trajectory if he makes them on a regular basis.

Independent of those shots going down, one of the things that stands out about Maxey is that he plays his game regardless of the opponent and rarely shows fear of the moment. With the reigning Finals MVP in front of him on a handful of possessions in the first half, Maxey went right at Giannis Antetokounmpo, getting by him or finishing over him with some excellent craft, utilizing his runner and banking in some tough layups in traffic.

This is not the most fun way to watch a game, but I also think it'd be worth your time to watch Maxey for a full game on defense these days. The progress he has made as a team defender over the last year is borderline stunning — Maxey's defense was horrific at times during his rookie year (as it is for most young guys), and now he's timing off-ball help with a level of precision that allows him to force the ball where the Sixers want it to go and then recover to his man without allowing an opening to happen. His growth there has been terrific, even if you set aside some of the highlight reel plays he came up with against Milwaukee.

With each high-minute game he plays, it feels like Maxey figures one more thing out. Tuesday night, there was a beautiful outlet pass over the top to a streaking Andre Drummond, a tough play to see and make at his size that he made look rather easy.  The more you watch him play and hear about the work he puts in on off days, the more you're convinced he's going places.

• Shake Milton was back on the positive side of the see-saw on Tuesday night, filling in with the starting group decimated but doing a lot of his heavy lifting from his customary spot with the second unit. Even when it wasn't pretty — and Milton got caught in a lot of awkward spots on the floor on his way to the basket — he always seemed to get where he needed to in the end, making some tough, sweeping layups with both hands around the basket.

It was a good reminder of the physical advantages Milton has against some guards he'll get matched up with. With a sizable wingspan at his height, Milton is able to keep the ball out of reach of a lot of defenders he goes up against, and he was relatively ambidextrous against the Bucks, using lefty scoops throughout the game to both get around defenders and score through contact when it came. 

The Maxey-Milton combo is sort of an interesting blend of skills for Philly, with Maxey's speed demon act a nice contrast to Milton's slower, more deliberate style on offense. Though they seem to do their best work when they're able to cook on their own, the Sixers will be an even more dangerous team if they can figure out how to synergize their skill sets. 

(All of this said, I don't know what in god's name Shake was doing trying to attack Giannis on one possession with about 2:25 to go in the fourth. The ensuing shot was a Shaqtin a Fool candidate.)

• They certainly did not stop Giannis Antetokounmpo on every possession, but the two-man combo of Paul Reed and Charles Bassey deserve a lot of credit for the work they did against Milwaukee's top dog. That's especially true in Reed's case — Bassey had a great block of Giannis in the first half, but Reed spent large stretches of the game tracking Giannis around the gym, and he did about as well as you could expect in the circumstances.

Foul trouble was a concern for Reed early in this one, though both of those fouls came on questionable officiating decisions. Outside of that, Reed did a good job of making Giannis work for his points, staying down on his feet and using his combination of length and athleticism to bait his cover into tough shots. The occasional step-through move aside — and Reed got put into a blender on a couple of those — Reed did a good job of simply staying in front.

If we have learned anything during this undermanned stretch recently, it's that Reed has a place in the NBA, even if his fit can be a little tricky depending on who's in the lineup for Philly. There is more than just long limbs and playing hard, and the more minutes he gets to prove himself, the more potential he has flashed as an NBA contributor.

• Welcome back to Georges Niang, whose shot returned after a tough stretch from deep over the previous few games. The Sixers' backup forward was surprisingly gun-shy given the roll he was on in the first half — there were at least two or three plays after he hit four straight threes to open up the game where he had a window to shoot, only for Niang to swing the ball or drive toward the hoop instead, ultimately wasting those opportunities.

(Still, he did his job and drew Bucks defenders to him wherever he was on the floor, and that helped open things up for a group of guys that had real creation issues at times.)

Looking past the on-court production, Niang feels like the sort of role player who was made for this market specifically. A product of the Northeast (try to forget he grew up in Celtics country), Niang plays with real fire on both ends of the floor, and his willingness to play to the crowd has already led to a few monster moments early in his tenure here. The home faithful rose to their feet and provided a standing ovation when he scored through contact and prompted a Bucks timeout late in the fourth, and it feels like a few more of those could be on the horizon.

• I feel like a broken record on this one, but you really can't say enough about the collective fight and harmony this group has shown all season. This team had absolutely no business hanging around in this game as long as they did, and there's a different guy every night carrying the load and finding a way to give the Sixers a puncher's chance against healthier or deeper teams. When the Sixers eventually get this group close to full strength, they are going to be a lot to handle for opponents. 

The Bad

• There haven't been any good nights for Furkan Korkmaz to have a down evening lately, but he unleashed all the misses he stored up on one night, struggling to find a rhythm from anywhere on the floor. Philly ran him off of screens for catch-and-shoot looks, asked him to create as a ballhandler, and tried to lean on him as they have all season, and Korkmaz just did not have it, throwing up brick after brick against the Bucks.

Not much to analyze here. He just didn't have it.

• The numbers suggest Andre Drummond did plenty to leave his mark on this game, improving his finishing at the rim and Hoovering up a lot of rebounds as he did the previous night vs. New York. Without his tip-ins, this game likely gets away from Philly much earlier in the second half. It did not feel, though, like the box score was representative of his impact on the game, and there were a number of plays where he went missing as a team defender that the Sixers were punished for.

Down this many guys, the Sixers were in need of total buy-in from every guy on the floor each possession, and whether he was lost in space or simply too tired to make a rotation every time it was required, Drummond loafed on numerous halfcourt possessions, ultimately leading to some wide-open threes or shots in the paint for Milwaukee.

(If you don't want to take my word for it, Doc Rivers seemed to feel the same way. Early in the second half — 38 seconds into it, to be exact — Rivers called a timeout and chewed Drummond out.)

Drummond also had some hare-brained plays on the offensive end of the floor, with one particularly hilarious pass made in the first half never coming close to a teammate. It was as if Drummond was convinced Semi Ojeleye was actually on the Sixers, hitting him right in the hands with a kick-out pass in the second quarter.

The tank skewing toward empty would not be something any of us could judge the guy for — this was his second straight night of heavy minutes, and at his size with the way he plays, those are all taxing minutes. Still, they needed more out of him to get this one over the line.

• Danny Green coming off of the bench to start this game wasn't the craziest move in the world from Doc Rivers, who likely wanted to get a veteran alongside a younger second unit (and put less milage on Green in the second half of a back-to-back). But Green did not exactly thrive in that role on Tuesday night, and his season-long shooting numbers feel like they overstate how impactful he has been as a floor spacer. The momentum threes he hit with regularity last season don't feel like they're going down as much this season, and as we've discussed after previous games, he has had a tough time sliding up to their top perimeter assignments this year.

For now, you can hold onto the hope that he'll look closer to the guy he has been most of his career, and that a full lineup will slide him into a lower-leverage role that he's more than capable of making an impact from. Hell, Monday night's game against New York featured some peak Danny Green defense, so it's not like he's incapable of meeting the level anymore. The Sixers just need him to find some semblance of consistency, and maybe all that takes is staying in the lineup and off of the trainer's table. 

• I am not sure what Doc Rivers thought he saw on the play that he challenged early in the third quarter, but considering the plays he hasn't challenged during his first two seasons in charge of the Sixers, it was a shocker.

The other major coaching misfire from my view was losing sight of what was happening with the Giannis matchup. With Reed doing a credible job against him, there was an easy case to make that Reed should basically be tethered to Giannis' minutes. When Rivers decided to take Reed out of the game and go small in the third quarter, Giannis got rolling in a big way by attacking Georges Niang on seemingly every other possession, making use of his physical advantages in space.

(You can complain about the way Giannis is and was officiated on Tuesday, but the Sixers still own their role in allowing him to impose his will and get in a position to get the calls he did. Niang and the other non-Reed guys made it easy to for the Greek Freak to impose his will.)

The Ugly

• Doc Rivers said on Monday night that it was an absolute necessity to play 10 guys against the Bucks in the second half of their back-to-back. That was before they were forced to hold back Seth Curry as a result of a foot contusion he suffered in the Knicks game. But Rivers ended up basically playing eight guys, stretching the guys that made the rotation pretty thin.

As in the game against New York, I can understand why you'd do it from a "trying to win" perspective. Throwing Aaron Henry and Jaden Springer into the mix against the Bucks, even a shorthanded Bucks group, is asking for trouble. But so is subjecting an already shorthanded roster to a boatload of minutes in a short period of time.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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