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March 17, 2021

What to watch for in Sixers' first meeting of season with Milwaukee Bucks

A Sixers-Bucks game in mid-March does not have the same juice we thought it might have even a week ago, when it loomed as the first big test for Philadelphia following the All-Star break. Without Joel Embiid on the floor, it remains a marquee meeting in the race for the East's top seed, but it's not the clash of titans it could have been.

That doesn't mean we can't learn a little something about how these two teams match up from their first meeting of the season, one that finds the Embiid-less Sixers as six-point home underdogs, according to Both rosters have undergone fairly significant changes since they last met in late February 2020 — boy, that feels like a lifetime ago — with both teams swapping out starters and the Sixers undergoing a dramatic transformation off of the floor.

So while we must wait on the true litmus test game until Embiid returns, we have plenty to learn about this Sixers team's plan for the Bucks, particularly on the defensive end.

Defending Giannis without Joel Embiid

It feels strange to think Sixers vs. Bucks is a backburner event this year, just one season after the two teams squared off on Christmas Day, but we've been left waiting for the first matchup between two Eastern Conference contenders. And that provides us with a very important question to answer: who is going to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo for Philly?

We have seen the influence a change in coaching philosophy has had on this group. Their defensive schemes have changed, they've tapped into Joel Embiid's skills from different areas of the floor, and they've blended good concepts from years past with Doc Rivers' concepts. But the Bucks have a unique best player who the Sixers (rightfully) used a unique defensive plan to stop, and the man at the heart of that plan is out for this game.

It's not often you see Embiid taking the primary perimeter assignment, but Antetokounmpo's shaky jumper allowed the Sixers to continue playing drop coverage while meeting him at the rim with length and strength. In both time of possession and possessions logged against Milwaukee's best player, Embiid was top of the list for Philly, followed closely by Al Horford:

 PlayerTime on Giannis Possessions vs. Giannis 
Joel Embiid 10:49 46.5
 Al Horford 10:46 45.7 
 Tobias Harris 2:0110.9
 Ben Simmons 2:189.6 

When they were able to keep Embiid on him, the Sixers got their desired result: Antetokounmpo spent a healthy chunk of his time bombing threes against a big man who hardly cared about contesting them, shooting 10/28 from the field and managing just seven assists against four turnovers. Holding the reigning MVP roughly 20 percentage points below his average is quite a feat, and it didn't take a complicated gameplan to slow him down.

Had Embiid been healthy for this game, I actually think you would have seen a similar strategy for Philly this year, even with the coaching turnover and philosophical changes. With Dan Burke running the defense in Indiana, it was Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner leading the way on Antetokounmpo last season. In two meetings between Antetokounmpo and Rivers' Clippers, it was a battery of role players and big men (Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Patterson, Maurice Harkless, Ivica Zubac) who took the assignment, in spite of the presence of big wing defenders in Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. Antetokounmpo is a power/strength player, so you meet him with strength in the halfcourt and wall him off in transition.

Most possessions played out in similar fashion: Embiid dropped almost all the way to the rim, absorbed contact, and either blocked or bothered Antetokounnmpo's shot attempts around the basket:

Tony Bradley and Dwight Howard have both been pretty excellent lately, but you're asking a lot if you expect them to spend the entire game guarding Giannis. Bradley's positional instincts will put him in the right places, but he lacks the speed and length to recover from missteps and Giannis can likely just finish over him regardless. Howard probably has a better chance to hold up in space physically, but it could quickly devolve into a free-throw parade.

The big question is the amount of time Ben Simmons will spend guarding Milwaukee's best player. That matchup has been a bit of a toss-up for Philly in past seasons, but Simmons doesn't have the same backing this time around. Rivers has shown an inclination to reserve Simmons for a second-half push against opposing perimeter players, and perhaps that will hold true in this meeting. I suspect that will probably be necessary to keep Simmons fresh enough to make an impact in the second half.

Scheme changes vs. Khris Middleton

Quietly, the Sixers have a bit of a Khris Middleton problem. Even with Embiid playing capable defense on Giannis and freeing up Simmons to take on Milwaukee's No. 2 man, he has sort of done whatever he has wanted in recent years. Last year was particularly fruitful for Middleton. He averaged 25-8-3 on 56.6/43.5/100 shooting splits, shooting nearly 59 percent from the field with Simmons guarding him, though it's worth noting that Simmons bowed out early due to injury in the final meeting between the two teams.

I wouldn't put all (or even most) of the blame on Simmons for those numbers. While Philadelphia dropping their bigs was a sensible approach to stop Antetokounmpo, it's playing with fire whenever Middleton is the ballhandler in pick-and-rolls. I'm not trying to trigger any PTSD, but he was one of many players who found a way to get going by eating the open space he could predictably get against the Sixers' base defense.

Institutionally, the Sixers were content to give open looks to Middleton from midrange, instructing Embiid and Horford to hang back and keep Antetokounmpo away from the ball and off of the glass.

The Sixers have moved in a much different direction under assistant coach/defensive coordinator Dan Burke, who Rivers has credited for his contribution to the team's second-ranked defense.

"Dan's an amazing defensive coach, and we stay on them," Rivers said following their win over Spurs on Sunday. "We stay on them about every possession being ready and down, transition D, pick-and-roll D, weak side help. That's the three things we really focus on and they're starting to see it. The more you're successful at it, the more guys trust it."

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Theoretically, the style of defense the Sixers play this year should work just fine when Middleton is in pick-and-rolls with, say, Brook Lopez. They don't have to deal with much dynamism from the roller in those situations, so playing up further and leaning on weakside help should be fine. But what happens when the Bucks try to run Middleton in sets or handoffs with, say, Antetokounmpo as the screener? They almost certainly won't be as passive as in the clips you see above.

There are a number of pitfalls in that matchup. If Antetokounmpo's defender shows too high/aggressively, Middleton is a good enough playmaker to hit him on the roll with nobody but smaller defenders between him and the rim. Dropping too far, as we've seen in the past, is close to a death sentence itself.

Other teams, including the Miami Heat in last year's Finals run, found success by showing high and switching on the action, denying Middleton space to dribble into while keeping someone close to Giannis at all times. But the Sixers haven't been a very switch-heavy team this year, nor are they particularly equipped to be one. This is where the "Who guards Giannis?" question fades to irrelevance — Simmons can hold up fine on either end of that switch, but most other guys on the roster can't, and Middleton would cook bigger and slower players if he has the good fortune to see them in front of him.

A preview of the next couple of weeks?

Philadelphia has played great basketball since returning from the All-Star break and no one can take that away from them. We can note, of course, that they haven't exactly played a murderer's row of teams.

The Bucks are the first team they'll face since losing Joel Embiid to injury where his absence is a big deal. And teams in the Bucks' weight class are coming fast and furious once the Sixers begin a road trip on Sunday that takes them coast-to-coast and lasts past the trade deadline, eventually dumping them back in Philly in early April.

You should never use one game to define a team in the NBA — there are too many schedule quirks and contrasts in motivation for that — but this team's ability to hold up without Embiid will be more obvious Wednesday evening than it was following meetings with the Spurs and Knicks. It's a potential playoff preview, admittedly one with a big absence, and it's the first one they'll have with fans in the home arena this season. Can't wait.

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