Hey, the Milwaukee Bucks won a basketball game tonight!
Oh, that's right.
The Bucks' players may have (just barely) salvaged their dignity with a 109-108 win over the lowly Sixers on Sunday night, but that probably won't matter much to anyone watching the lottery standings, which due to the win saw the Bucks drop to tenth when a loss would have seen them move up to eighth. In many ways you could call it the worst of both worlds: the Bucks were unimpressive enough in victory that no one will give them any credit for winning, and close enough to making up ground in the lotto standings that many will be left embittered by their inability to lose.
And so it goes.
As for the game, Khris Middleton (controversially!) returned from the thigh injury that had held him out of the past three games and matched a career-high with 36 points to go with nine assists, breezing past the Sixer defense time and again on a night when he made 13/19 shots inside the arc and just 1/5 from deep. John Henson added an 18-10 double-double and Giannis Antetokounmpo nearly pulled off an ultra-rare 5x5 with 14 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, five blocks and three steals. Meanwhile, Jabari Parker was quiet for much of the night but sparked an 11-2 run in OT with a dunk and late-clock three -- his second of the game -- to finish with 15 points (6/10 fg) and six rebounds.
While Greg Monroe was rested, Middleton playing a game-high 43 minutes in a cosmically meaningless contest is going to raise plenty of eyebrows. Not that you'd want or expect the Bucks' players to be trying to lose any game -- especially against one of the worst teams in NBA history -- but let's just say Middleton's big night won a battle but may not help the war.
On the same day Bryan Colangelo was not-so-welcomed to Philly, the Bucks perhaps predictably built a big lead early, leading 62-45 at the half before going through the motions for much of the next two quarters. Ish Smith's near-triple-double (22 pts, 9 ast, 8 rebs), Jerami Grant's and Nerlens' Noels efficient night in the paint (18 points on 9/12 fg) helped Philly fight back to take a 98-96 lead on Smith's dunk with 33 seconds left in regulation, but Noel goaltended Giannis' shot shortly thereafter.
- We've talked a lot about Middleton's improved off-the-bounce game this year, and the fact that he had eight buckets in the paint tonight says plenty.
- I have no idea how serious Middleton's injury has been, or what the actual process is for clearing a guy to play in a game like this. Still, it's difficult to justify him playing unless he's been 100% for the past few days -- and tough to justify playing him more minutes than anyone else no matter how healthy he is.
To which many people would add, "Who cares if he's healthy? Rest the whole team!" And I get that, though I think the balancing act between "prioritizing development" (ie playing young guys at the expense of going all-out to win) and telling players you don't care about winning (which I think matters more than most of us on the internet probably want to admit) is a rather difficult minefield to navigate. No team in the 5-13 range of the lottery has won fewer games or started younger lineups than the Bucks over the past ten games, so it's difficult to say the Bucks are going all out; hell, the mere fact that they needed OT to win tonight speaks volumes about the effect that injuries and late-season indifference are having on the team. People can act like things are black and white, but unfortunately I would beg to differ. That doesn't mean Middleton should have played 43 minutes -- or perhaps even at all -- but pretty much everything is shades of gray at this point.
- Part of what makes everything difficult to parse is the Bucks' injury situation: the Bucks have typically been missing four to five guys every night, so on some level they have to be playing their young guys no matter how much they might care or not care about winning games. All of which makes you wonder if Damien Inglis is back in Kidd's doghouse because of how much he's struggling in games vs. what he might be doing (or not doing) in practice and everywhere else. Putting aside Monroe's "rest" night, Inglis was the only healthy DNP-CD against Philly, which also makes Middleton's major minute return all the more questionable.
Though he's shown good potential on the defensive end, Inglis hasn't offered much of anything on the offensive side (28.1% shooting, 1/11 threes on the season), which seems to be a recurring theme among non-Jabari 2014 and 2015 draftees. While our sample of Inglis minutes isn't nearly as large as the ones we have for Johnny O'Bryant and Rashad Vaughn, it's sobering to think that all of them have been as unproductive as they are. Inglis in particular is still very young, but it's remarkable to think that the Bucks haven't drafted and actually kept a useful guy in the second round since Luc Mbah a Moute in 2008.
- Giannis has often struggled to score efficiently against the Sixers the last couple years -- give some credit to Robert Covington and Jerami Grant -- though as usual he did plenty of other things tonight, including a couple of big blocks down the stretch and another block in OT that was incorrectly ruled a goaltend. Offensively, he hit 1/4 from three after hitting 6/9 over the past two games, which probably isn't a coincidence -- Giannis said this week that Kidd is encouraging him to shoot the three whenever he's got a decent look.