Giannis Antetokounmpo willed the Bucks to victory to clinch the season series over the Sixers, Philadelphia losing a 118-116 squeaker despite strong efforts from James Harden and Joel Embiid.
Here’s what I saw.
• There is a monumental difference between James Harden when he looks to score vs. James Harden when he is overfocused on playmaking or trying to draw as many fouls as possible. That last part comes naturally when he makes an earnest effort to get to the rim, and Harden wanted to go right at Khris Middleton to open Tuesday’s meeting with Milwaukee.
It’s impossible for me to say whether Harden feels dramatically different physically on a game-to-game basis, and the easy way out is to chalk it all up to mental approach. If Harden were able to get to the rim and score as often as he did in Tuesday’s game, there would be no concerns about their title ceiling, their long-term commitment to him, and his status as one of the most dangerous players in the league. And maybe it is as simple as Harden focusing on that area of the game and not worrying so much about getting everyone else going.
Seeing Harden score at the rim against a team like Milwaukee is heartening, as they’re a tough team to break through at the first level to begin with. But by hunting switches and looking for favorable matchups, Harden managed to do what made him a superstar for so many years in Houston, torturing slower defenders in space whenever the Bucks dared to put one on him.
If anything, Harden attacking and looking for the edge out of pick-and-rolls and handoffs makes him an even more dangerous playmaker, regardless of how high or low the assist count is. The Bucks started conceding open free-throw line jumpers to Embiid with Harden on a roll in the first half, and that’s the prison Philadelphia puts you in when their perimeter star gets going. You can either try to prevent Harden from scoring, or you’re likely going to concede a bread-and-butter shot to their MVP candidate.
Harden having this sort of game against the best opponent they had left on the schedule will bring a lot of people peace between now and April 16th. If Harden is still capable of getting to this level against elite competition, the Sixers have a real shot to hang with anybody in the playoffs.
• This game looked destined to be a dreadful Embiid game in the first quarter, with the big man searching for the range and seemingly losing his grip on a chance to win MVP. Slowly but surely, he found his way, and the end of the second quarter served as an Embiid showcase and momentum builder, the big man ultimately turning it up to help keep them in front for a lot of Tuesday night’s battle.
Embiid’s most important decision in this game came during his poor shooting start, when he looked poised to shoot them right out of the game with a series of bricks from all levels. Instead of doubling down on that approach, Embiid began searching for his teammates around the floor with Milwaukee overcommitting toward him on the block. There was a crosscourt feed to Danny Green for a corner three, a pass to Tobias Harris on the wing for a catch-and-shoot attempt, and constant ball movement that stemmed from his desire to attack the gaps. It was about the trust he showed for everyone else, trust that helped shake up an offense that looked pretty putrid to open the game.
Eventually, the real Embiid would stand up and be counted, navigating the Milwaukee pressure in expert fashion throughout the final three quarters. The Bucks did their best to try to get anyone else to beat them, sending soft doubles before he even got the ball on the block. Again and again, Embiid would establish himself on the block, and he found ways to score with the Bucks hanging all over him, depositing one layup in the fourth quarter despite three Bucks hanging on him in the paint.
His turnover with just under three to play, however, was absolutely inexcusable and the sort of play he has to grow out of to be a title-winning player. His miss with a chance to take the lead in the game’s final 30 seconds will also likely haunt him after this one. He and Harden still have some kinks to work out in late-game offense, and they don’t have a lot of time to figure it all out. Even with those problems, this was a game there for taking with the reigning Finals MVP playing an absolute banger of a game.
• Doc Rivers downplayed the importance of this game when he spoke to reporters pregame, noting that they have to take all their games seriously before their playoffs because of how much they have left to work on. But if you watched this one and came away thinking they treated it as any old regular-season game, you didn’t see the same game I did.
Up and down the rotation, the Sixers played with a level of defensive intensity they’ve rarely showed, closing out hard on shooters and rotating on the back end at a level near playoff intensity. That included Joel Embiid, who often saves some miles on his legs in the first halves of games and lurks near the painted area to turn away would-be scorers at the basket. You could argue with the decision-making at times — no one needs to be closing that hard at Giannis Antetokounmpo when he shoots threes — but that’s something you worry about in a playoff series, not necessarily in a March game where you’re just trying to see where you’re at relative to another contender.
Each guy did their part in getting the job done. There were off-ball stunts from guys like Tyrese Maxey; a block from Danny Green to help Embiid in the post; and a whole bunch of Matisse Thybulle deflections in the early going, all of which helped the Sixers survive until their offense could eventually get going.
We have seen them get to a reasonably high level on defense a few times since Harden joined the team, and at minimum, the requisite buy-in is there from the group. They might end up being short on numbers to play playoff-caliber defense against the best of the best, but they have had some good moments, at the very least.
• Tobias Harris needs to bottle up whatever has him going at the moment and manufacture a lifetime supply of it. Before Joel Embiid got rolling to end the second quarter, it was Tobias Harris who served as the 2 in the 1-2 punch with Harden, lifting the Sixers up at a time where they badly needed it.
Embiid, poor as he shot to open the game, deserves a chunk of the credit for that. There were some forced-up shots and bad misses for the big fella, but he calmed down after an erratic start and began using the pressure Milwaukee sent at him to find shooters all around the floor. Harris was one of them, and he continued his trend of letting shots fly when there were openings for him to attack. Seeing him jab step into a three-point attempt is a beautiful sight if you’ve become accustomed to him doing that and then settling for a tough midrange look.
When Harris put his head down and made an effort to from midrange and around the basket, he wasn’t half-bad there either. On one noteworthy possession in the first half, Harris took a clunky possession and made something out of it by attacking Giannis Antetokounmpo going left, finishing strong at the basket despite the ever-looming threat Giannis poses to block your shot. Finishing through contact has been a sore spot for Harris historically, though he has perked up there recently.
Harris had a tougher time on the defensive end of the floor, admittedly drawing some tough assignments on that end. The biggest issue for Harris comes down to discipline—he has shown the strength and foot speed to keep a lot of good players in front of him, but he has a tendency to undo that work with reaches and gambles. Overall, another strong effort from him in a supporting role.
• If Danny Green actually looks like Danny Green in the playoffs, the Sixers’ title odds probably don’t change, but they are a safer, more stable group to bet on. Just having one more decent two-way player in the rotation would go a long way.
• If the Sixers had a discernible plan on offense to start this game, it didn’t show up on the floor. You rarely saw them do anything other than run a middle pick-and-roll involving James Harden and Joel Embiid, and though that has been a fruitful set for them since Harden joined the team, the Bucks stifled them repeatedly after a hot start from Harden .
Give Milwaukee a lot of credit for their role in Philadelphia’s slow start. With activity, rotations, and good positioning behind the Embiid/Harden action, they were often able to put pressure on-ball and still prevent Embiid from getting space behind the defense to attack. When the ball eventually made its way to Embiid, any openings had disappeared, and the Sixers were forced to reset, recycle, or live with a tough Embiid jumper over Brook Lopez’s outstretched arms.
• Up until he caught fire late in the game, this was not Georges Niang’s night. The bench forward got a barrage of open looks on Tuesday night, and Shake Milton had a similarly difficult time finding the range, though he was able to at least score on a night step-through move on the second side after Embiid recycled a possession out of the post.
I thought there was still plenty to like regarding the shots they got and the sets they ran to create those shots. Philadelphia sent him ball screens from all over the floor using different sorts of players, using guards and bigs alike in an effort to force Milwaukee to either switch the action or concede an open look to a good (at least in theory) shooter. The Sixers will certainly live with the looks they got from three, I would imagine, and Niang’s eventual outburst felt like a fair correction.
• The details are where you lose playoff games against tough competition, and they’re the biggest reason people are so skeptical of Doc Rivers as a playoff coach. They made some adjustments in approach coming into the game, but when they were presented with new wrinkles and scoring runs to deal with, he sat back and let the game happen to his team rather than making any sort of change to stop it.
The biggest sin was the bench plan against Giannis, who absolutely tore Paul Millsap apart to start the fourth quarter. Frankly, I think I would rather see Paul Millsap on the floor instead of DeAndre Jordan on a general level, if only because it allows the Sixers to basically play five-out on offense. they got some good looks as a result of that switch, and you’re not going to see me asking for Jordan to get time against Milwaukee. That being said, asking this version of Millsap to defend Giannis is just cruel. He fought valiantly, but he had no luck, and Rivers allowed him to go on an absolute tear against his backup center without sending additional help Millsap’s way.
Rivers tried to get Embiid back in the game early in the fourth quarter and eventually showed that he knew the matchup was a problem, but by the time he actually called a timeout, Milwaukee was down by just two points and right in the thick of it . Too little, too late. Every moment counts in these sort of games, and Rivers has to answer the bell just as his players do.
• Danny Green getting called for a foul because Khris Middleton fell down was one of the lowlights of the game on a night with plenty of questionable decisions.
• Giannis is getting severely shortchanged in the MVP discussion. It has been talked about as basically a two-player race between the two centers, perhaps because it’s easier to talk about it in those terms with two centers. But No. 34 on Milwaukee is as good as it gets and doesn’t deserve to finish a distant third, which is how the race seems to be shaping up with a couple of weeks left to go. Game-winning plays on both ends of the floor.
• The goaltending review late leading to a jump ball at midcourt is totally insane.
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