While the Milwaukee Bucks have their playoff spot locked up, the Philadelphia 76ers are playing for little more than pride and resume padding at this point. But for much of the first half of Monday night's game in Philadelphia, it looked like pride--too much for Philly, perhaps not enough for Milwaukee--might be enough to trip up the Bucks as they coast into the postseason. Thankfully, Michael Carter-Williams' revenge game is strong.
Carter-Williams scored 30 points in his first return to Philadelphia since being traded to the Bucks at the trade deadline, putting on the sort of show that would have surely made it a tougher decision for the 76ers had he done it more often in red, white, and blue. MCW shot 11-17 from the field and made 8-13 free throws while adding 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Carter-Williams seems to have developed a reputation as something of an easy-going player, not a guy with an edge. At times Wednesday night, those who subscribe wouldn't have recognized him. MCW was fast, aggressive, and sharp. He jumped passing lanes, hit open players in stride (mostly), and attacked his former teammates en route to the rim over and over again. MCW's drives went a long way toward helping Milwaukee rack up 64 points in the paint.
MCW got support from the efficient scoring of Ersan Ilyasova (13 points, 5-8 FG, 2-3 3PT) and O.J. Mayo (13 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals), and the Bucks as a team got a ton of help from the turnover-prone 76ers. Philly coughed up the ball a total of 30 times, including 13 steals by the Bucks, allowing Milwaukee to work the transition game early and often. The Bucks finished with 47 points off of turnovers.
They needed those points bad, because the 76ers lit up Milwaukee's defense early on, showing good shot selection and a determination to draw fouls whenever possible. The Bucks were lucky Philly's shot was so off (in fairness, it usually is), because Philadelphia's game plan was good enough to win. Milwaukee's defense clamped down much more in the second half, with most of the Sixers' offense coming from mistakes Milwaukee made on their end. That turned a big deficit into a comfortable lead, and while things got a bit dicey toward the end, Milwaukee made the plays they needed to when they had to make them.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had a modest game, leading the team in rebounds (7) but sinking only 3-9 shots and committing 5 fouls. Giannis did earn 10 free throws, making six, and added a couple of highlight plays in the second quarter.
HOLY GIANNIS SPIN MOVE https://t.co/Di4UlUon1x— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) April 13, 2015
Giannis pick-and-AHHHHHHHH https://t.co/SYa2uRYcbx— Frank Madden (@brewhoop) April 14, 2015
Those plays suggested it could be a big night for Giannis, and it was disappointing to see him sort of disappear afterwards. It was a bit of a disjointed game throughout, and it never felt like Giannis got in a rhythm despite the dunking--he didn't make a shot outside the paint all night.
Philadelphia was led by 25 points from Robert Covington, who made 12-13 free throws but also committed 10 turnovers. Hollis Thompson had 19 but was just 3-10 from three, part of Philadelphia's 6-28 night from behind the arc. Three other players scored in double figures for Philly, but none did it in a particularly efficient manner.
And now, a rant.
The Bucks have a problem with running out lineups like they did in the second quarter when Philadelphia's lead ballooned. When a Gutierrez-Bayless-Middleton-Giannis-Plumlee lineup takes the court, you'd assume Middleton and Giannis are going to be heavily involved on the offensive end. Every set should revolve around getting Middleton an open catch-and-shoot jumper, or isolating Giannis in space with a chance to get to the rim. Instead, too often those lineups look completely helpless to execute much of anything cohesive, ultimately settling for a pull-up jumper by the point guard or something.
It seems like there are two possible root causes. Maybe the Bucks' execution is lacking, be it those primary guys or the teammates expected to play more "supporting" roles. Alternatively, defenses know who's a threat and who isn't, making it easier to shut those key players down. These aren't problems that are going to solve themselves, and they are definitely problems that are going to pop up repeatedly in the playoffs when Milwaukee's starters hit the bench.
Now Milwaukee was missing Jared Dudley, who remains a relatively important part of the bench rotation, and the game was mostly meaningless. So a single sloppy half when one of the NBA's worst teams torched a playoff squad is not necessarily indicative of a systemic problem.
But trust me, it's systemic. Or at the very least, recurring. It's an issue that can't be solved overnight, maybe even over the course of a single season. It's also hard to identify where the responsibility to fix it falls. The coaching staff certainly needs to consider what lineups like this are capable of, and maybe plan better to avoid then. But that's probably easier said than done at times with a Bucks roster not exactly flush with depth.
It also falls to guys like Giannis and Middleton, in this specific case, to recognize when things are slipping and do something about it. Their evolution as players has already seen improvement in assertiveness and versatility, but the Bucks, as always, need more. The playoffs are waiting, and if the Bucks hope to make noise in the postseason, everybody's game needs to hit that next level.