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November 19, 2022

Likes and dislikes from Sixers' chaotic victory (and postgame) vs. the Bucks

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Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Bucks-November-2022 Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

Sixers center Joel Embiid amps up Philly fans at the Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers somehow managed to steal a feel-good win from the Bucks and have that turn into a debate about who was in the wrong in a postgame ladder match, but that hysteria in Philadelphia should not overshadow what was an excellent team performance. To finally get above .500 this season, the Sixers needed a little something from everybody against the Bucks, making up for the absence of several key players somehow and some way.

Here's some of what we saw throughout a gritty Sixers performance, and in the moments after the game ended.

Like: Manufacturing a win, no matter what it took

If you would have told me at halftime that the Sixers would escape this game with a win after losing Tyrese Maxey to an injury, I would have thought you were crazy. Embiid's shooting touch was off, the Bucks were getting basically whatever they wanted on offense, and they'd lost their best guard in the midst of a heater. Forget about the actual basketball impact of Maxey hitting the showers — it would have been reasonable to feel a bit deflated.

Somehow, the Sixers managed to outscore Milwaukee 55-40 in the second half, down three starters and two of their three best players. They stumbled at times, but they never fell, and they came away with a win the group can be proud of.

They scraped this one together with some Macguyver-ish rigging and contributions from bench heroes. Paul Reed got power forward minutes next to both of Philadelphia's other bigs, somehow emerging with a +5 in the box score despite spending most of his minutes hanging on for dear life against Giannis. Georges Niang had what is slowly becoming a routine big performance off the bench, scoring 17 points and playing most of crunch time as a trusted sharpshooter next to Embiid. And with Maxey down, Shake Milton was forced to play over 31 minutes, giving the Sixers another 15 points with six assists as a cherry on top, earning praise from Embiid for being one of few guys on the roster who know how to throw pocket passes.

Philadelphia's depth has taken a beating this year, at times justifiably so, for failing to live up to the preseason and offseason hype. Guys who many people were happy to see pushed to the fringes of the rotation have been forced back to the forefront as a result of these injuries, and even in Friday night's game, it was a rollercoaster on the way to the finish line. 

The next-man-up mentality, which Milton says is a feature of this group, is ultimately what pulled them through this one. 

"They know how much I support them," Embiid said of guys like Milton after the game. "When they're not playing, I'm always hoping, I'm always pushing for them to stay locked in and just be ready, because I know at some point they're going to get minutes. I'm just happy to see them take advantage of those opportunities."

"I'm just happy to be able to share these opportunities with them."

Recall this moment and savor its rarity: Montrezl Harrell, Milton, and Niang combining to come up with a strip of Giannis at the rim, each man in that trio completely unequipped to deal with Giannis straight up. Moments like these are how you pull a win seemingly out of thin air:

It also helps to have a superhuman at the center of the team. Joel Embiid vs. Brook Lopez was the top battle of the night, a 48-minute fight for real estate that Lopez very nearly won for the second time this year. As they've done many times during the Doc Rivers era, though, the Sixers fell into a set late and found something that worked, running it repeatedly until the Bucks were out of this one for good. A Niang screen from the ballhandler, another screen from Embiid, a pass back to the big man, cash money:

"We really were trying to run anything without Jrue Holiday involved down the stretch," Rivers said with a laugh afterward. "[De'Anthony Melton] and Shake kind of figured it out, wherever he was the other guy handled it."

But the big story, and the one the Sixers continue to crow about the most, was their ability to lock the other end of the floor down when it counted. Philadelphia held the Bucks to 7/21 shooting in the fourth quarter and 16/42 for the second half. Even some of Milwaukee's quality looks came on shots the Sixers made them work hard for, shots that ended up in the hands of guys you'd ultimately live with shooting if you had to. Their performance on defense ultimately pushed the Sixers even further up the leaderboard, the Sixers in current possession of the third-best defense in the league.

"We got a great group of guys that have bought in, that's the key. When you got guys that buy into what we're trying to do, you're going to go places," Embiid said Friday. "And I think those guys have done it, that's why we've been able to be so good defensively."

Insofar as this can be a momentum builder? The veterans are skeptical.

"You kind of feel like you can do that with certain runs and certain parts of the schedule, like we should get a few in a row here, but it never works out the way you plan," P.J. Tucker said Friday. "I really honestly just take it game by game. You got to, there's too many of them, each of them is too important, so you just gotta keep fighting every night."

Rubber bands and glue are all the Sixers have to figure this thing out. We'll see if that's enough. 

Like: Embiid embracing playmaking

This was not a game Embiid won by demolishing the opponent. In fact, until he went on a bit of a barrage late, this was a game where it looked safe to call Brook Lopez the "winner" in the matchup because of how hard he made Embiid work and how tough it was for Embiid to get a clean look most of the night.

But Embiid has done his damnedest to quiet concerns about his ability to play out of a double, and certainly about his willingness to share the ball. Yes, he is shooting a ton, and yes, he is dominating possessions, but as he tells it himself, he wants the ball so he can share the ball.

"It should be like that every night, that's how we should be playing," Embiid said regarding his eight assists on Friday night. "I should be more aggressive, I want the ball — not to score, to make sure I get everybody involved. Myself, my teammates, because I believe that when I have the ball, there's so much attention being created I can make my teammates' lives easier. It's been like that the past few games, it doesn't matter when [our injured players] come back, it's got to keep going."

The turnovers have not stopped and will need to slow eventually, but the "good" thing you can say about Embiid's five turnovers in that none of them came because of misreads or hesitations under duress. Two travels and a trio of errant passes are nothing to brag about, but it's important to differentiate between a lack of chemistry with new guys (fixable) and an inability to read the floor this deep into his career.

What we're seeing lately is a lot of Embiid embracing the pressure that comes to him and using it against the Bucks. His assist count only tells part of the story. This missed shot from Shake Milton aside, this is what winning basketball looks like in the playoffs — you react to a double immediately, fire a pass to the open teammate, and create a wide-open three by simply playing with speed.

Sitting on 17 second-half points and in the midst of a heater down the stretch, the Sixers were up seven with a chance to kill off the game late in this one. Embiid would have been within his right to call his own number again as he found the touch late, but rather than forcing up another tough midrange look, he found Milton underneath for his easiest two points of the night, effectively ending the game in the process.

Embiid probably could have just bet on himself there and no one would have killed him, but doing this stuff isn't just the right basketball play, it buys you credibility as the leader of the team. When guys know they can and will get the ball back from you, they will make the effort you want out of them to get you the ball to start a possession. You can't simply ask the rest of the team to stand around and watch you bulldoze through doubles all night, and he knows that better than anyone. Seeing Embiid grow in this area the last couple of years is part of what gives you hope they can shed their second-round demons and break through.

Trust your guys, and sometimes they'll even make you look better than you deserve. Embiid got some assistance from his target on one specific helper, this dish to De'Anthony Melton in the corner that looks like an easier haul in on the broadcast angle than it was in person. 

This was nothing short of a miraculous grab from Melton on the sideline, and I might even go so far to say this was the play of the game, a potential turnover turning into a comfortable three in the corner:

"I had to get on my Odell," Melton joked after the game. Can't deny the one-handed catch comparisons, but maybe an Eagles reference next time, young man.

Dislike: Giannis Antetokounmpo and the case of the moving ladder

If you were in the building for Friday night's showdown, you left with 12 free chicken nuggets in your future thanks to Giannis' tough night at the free-throw line. Dominant as he is and can be, free-throw shooting remains one of his only potential weaknesses, and it loomed over Milwaukee's loss on Friday night.

Naturally, he decided he wanted to get some free throws in after the game. The timeline of events was then laid out by a Bucks fan filming the process in the arena. Montrezl Harrell interrupted Giannis' postgame practicing with some shenanigans, essentially telling Giannis he was taking the ball and he should go home. As this is happening, the arena worker brings the ladder they were using on the other side of the floor to remove equipment from the basket, setting up shop at the hoop Giannis had been shooting at but was in the process of vacating. Giannis returns, and well, you guys have all seen what happened with the ladder by the time you're reading this:

(One of the biggest reasons Twitter can't die is that I am simply not prepared to have to sort through TikTok for things like this. I digress.)

A piece of the story not caught on video: Harrell was not at all happy about what had transpired on the floor, because what started as some yelling out on the floor continued into the locker room, with Harrell still incensed in private quarters about what had just happened. 

Here's the list of things that aren't stupid in this incident:

  1. Giannis wanting to take free throws after a tough night at the line
  2. An arena worker wanting to get their job done sooner rather than later

The rest of this situation is ridiculous on all fronts, from Harrell bothering Giannis for no good reason to Giannis taking his frustration with Harrell and the game out on some random guy. I'm not one to defend Wells Fargo Center — it's a weird arena with lots of goofy behind-the-scenes quirks at the court level — but this is all pretty childish nonsense that we can probably leave at that.

Like: P.J. Tucker, a relentless pest

P.J. Tucker scored exactly zero points in Friday night's game, but he earned high praise from both his coach and teammates after the game.

"0-1, four rebounds, two assists, and he may have been our most important player on the floor tonight," Rivers said. "And I said that to our guys and everybody started clapping because they saw it. And it's a great example, how you help your team sometimes and it doesn't have to be scoring. He was huge for us tonight in what he did, good for him and good for some of our young guys to see that."

I'm not sure I would go as far as Rivers did, but we certainly agree on the idea of the box score not being enough here. Embiid's big first-quarter block on Giannis, for example, was made partially because Tucker was able to slow him down long enough to give the big man a chance to rotate. On a stop Paul Reed got on Giannis early in the second quarter, it was Tucker sliding into good help position late, forcing Giannis to put up a tough runner instead of using his long strides to coast past Reed to the basket:

There were a lot of plays like that where Tucker's ability to simply hang in or offer well-timed help ultimately helped Philadelphia get a stop. More and more of these plays are happening as he embeds himself in this team, even with Tucker looking slow-footed out of the gate.

When Giannis was hitting 10-foot fadeaways, a shot he has certainly improved on in recent years, you mostly had to just take that as a win because it meant he wasn't collapsing your defense and creating things for others. That's the real danger — it's one thing for Giannis to carve you up and put himself on the free-throw line over and over again, but you can't let his trips to the paint turn into a barrage of open looks for his teammates.

Dislike: Waiting to hear about Tyrese Maxey's injury

A physical injury was not enough to crush Maxey's spirit, at least if you let Rivers tell the story.

"I talked to him, he says what he always says. 'Coach, I'm good,'" Rivers said after the game. "But you know, I don't know he'll be good right away, would be my guess."

As he waited to get his Saturday MRI, Maxey was in a boot, which Rivers said should indicate to you how seriously the Sixers are taking this. And the shame of it is that Maxey had finally begun breaking out of a tough run without James Harden, crushing Milwaukee's coverages and carrying the offense mostly by himself.

You sort of knew this was serious the moment you heard Maxey begin unleashing a barrage of four-letter words behind the basket, visibly in pain among the crowd as he tried to walk off an injury that clearly couldn't be dealt with that way. Even in tough moments, it's rare to see Maxey angry even for a moment, and his visible frustration said everything. He had finally broken through with a big-time performance as the lead guard running this show, only for an injury to take his moment from him. The cruelty of sports.

Sending good vibes to young Maxey on this Saturday morning, both because you hope it's nothing serious and because this offensive product will be, well, subpar without him.


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