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Milwaukee vs. Philadelphia: 76ers 86ed At Last Second

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Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

With only a handful of games left in the season and neck-and-neck in the standings, last night’s showdown between the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers was highly anticipated. Not only do these two teams enjoy a healthy level of respect (animosity?) towards each other, but the Bucks and Sixers were tied in the Eastern Conference standings and the MVP race featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid is reaching a fever pitch.

It’s only fitting that this one came down to the final moments, with the Bucks taking the W – and the tiebreaker over the 76ers – by virtue of a 118-116 victory.

The game started with both teams playing to their strengths. Wes Matthews got the starting nod tonight, mostly to deal with James Harden. Harden showed some of his trademark burst when matched up against Khris Middleton on switches, but the Bucks were able to hit their shots and push the pace in transition to keep pace with Philly early on. Milwaukee opened up a bit of a lead on the back of some Sixer turnovers and a personal Giannis Antetokounmpo run of dominance, but Philly grifted their way back into it and ended the first quarter with a 27-24 Bucks lead.

Philly opened the second quarter with a small-ball lineup (Paul Millsap at center) and neither Joel Embiid or Harden on the court. Milwaukee did not exploit it as much as they could, but they did draw enough fouls on Philadelphia to enter the bonus with 7:41 remaining in the second quarter…and then the Sixers managed to retake the lead within a minute of play! Timely outside shooting from the 76ers buoyed their offense while Milwaukee’s stalled, and they simply couldn’t generate free throws at the same rate as Harden and Embiid. The Sixers leaned heavily on the Harden-Embiid pick and roll, where Harden would dump the ball off to Embiid at the foul line and the big man would generally find a decent look from there. The Philly lead ballooned to double-digits, and halftime commenced with the Bucks down 61-51.

Milwaukee came out of halftime with a bit of fire in the belly, cutting into the lead bit by bit but largely being held at bay. The Bucks just kept missing easy shots or committing ill-timed turnovers and couldn’t get enough momentum going to get over the hump. There were, let’s say, a fair number of late foul calls in this third quarter, and the two teams went into the final regulation period with the score favoring Philadelphia, 89-81.

The Bucks shot out to a productive start in the fourth, again trying to take advantage of a Harden-less, Embiid-less lineup to start the quarter, and Milwaukee forced a quick timeout and then retook the lead on a Khris Middleton three. The Bucks came alive at that point, hitting the threes they were missing before and forcing Sixer misses that were going in before. Harden hit his trademark step back three to bring the game back close, 108-105 favoring Milwaukee with less than five minutes remaining. The last five minutes was a display of the championship mettle the Bucks earned last summer, the gift that keeps on giving.

Three Things

Milwaukee’s defense was intentionally aggressive from the beginning. With the rotation finally at full-strength, there was a definite game-plan in place to take advantage of Philly’s offensive pace and structure. There seemed to be a rule in place where, after a certain point in the shot clock, the Bucks would blitz, trap, and double (sometimes triple!) team the Philly ball-handler. Then again, it might have simply been a reasonable response to Philly’s poor spacing:

This was partly aided by the Sixers’ tendency to walk the ball up the floor. James Harden especially was willing to burn 6-8 seconds of the shot clock just ambling up the court, narrowing the window with which Philadelphia could manufacture a decent shot. In the first half, they shot well enough for it to all work out. In the second half, they didn’t.

There’s still maybe some rotation issues to settle. It’s generally accepted that teams vacillate between “playing big” and “playing small” based on two things: their personnel, and the matchups. The Bucks, for their part, are pretty comfortable with the former, which makes them a safe bet to find something that works for the latter. Against Philadelphia, it would seem that playing big against Joel Embiid is a reasonable approach, but Milwaukee very much did not do that. Brook Lopez played 29 minutes, but the Bucks really leaned on Giannis for those non-Brook minutes; Bobby Portis played only 14, and Serge Ibaka only played 3. Was this an intentional tactic to push Philly out of their comfort zone, and to take advantage of Philly’s undersized depth? Or are there still wrinkles to iron out with the minutes allocated to Milwaukee’s bigs?

Giannis Antetokounmpo. I don’t know what else needs to be said about a guy who can do the things that Giannis does.

Much of the discourse this evening was about the NBA MVP race, and how Joel Embiid is propped up as this year’s “narrative” candidate while Giannis Antetokounmpo (and Nikola Jokic, don’t forget him) are arguably more deserving of the attention. But if you polled your fellow Bucks fans, dear reader, and asked them if you cared more about Giannis getting his third MVP award…or the Bucks earning another trip to the NBA Finals, the smart money is on the title shot over the individual accolades. Giannis being Giannis is what makes the Bucks an existential threat to the other 29 teams in this league and their hopes for a championship, and games like tonight are a demonstration of that irrefutable fact.

Maybe he mounts a miraculous comeback with the voters and wins MVP. Maybe he doesn’t. But regardless of which way that goes, his focus is driving the team forward, and we’re all thankful to be along for this ride.

Bonus Bucks Bits

  • Joel Embiid is always on the floor. Like, constantly. The guy is both incredibly massive and incredibly athletic, but he so often ends up on the ground! Why?!
  • The final score was close, and it might have been a larger lead had the Bucks not gotten a collection of uncharacteristic foul line misses from their shooters. Giannis himself was 7-for-10 and made up the bulk of the attempts, but Khris Middleton (3-for-5; 88.8% on the season), Grayson Allen (2-for-3, 85.7% on the year), and George Hill (1-for-2; 91.1% this season) all left points on the table. That’s two whole baskets worth!
  • Wes Matthews put forth some of his most energetic defensive effort in recent memory. It didn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet, but Wes was working for the 25 minutes of action he saw tonight.
  • Philly’s crunch time execution left much to be desired. Perhaps going all-in for James Harden wasn’t the best plan? (It probably was, but sometimes you gotta be a hater.)
  • The grifting from Harden and Embiid is exhausting to watch. They certainly draw enough contact on plays that aren’t called fouls for it to even out, but the blatant gaming of the system (a Philly specialty!) is tiresome. Not bad, not wrong…just tiresome.
  • I don’t think Paul Millsap is gonna be viable in the postseason for Philly. He was too old for this game, and he’s been too old! Giannis’ personal 15-point run between the third and fourth quarter got the Bucks back into the game, and it didn’t go unnoticed in Philly…
  • In the third quarter, Jrue Holiday had a pair of relatively open looks that he flat-out missed because of Joel Embiid’s presence. Not his contest of the shot, just his presence.
  • It wouldn’t be right if we didn’t acknowledge Giannis’ best performance of the evening…

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