76ers

Sixers get unpleasant look at a freak of nature

Sixers get unpleasant look at a freak of nature

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MILWAUKEE — The “Greek Freak” was back in the lineup, and oh how that changes a game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points, 18 rebounds and six assists in the Bucks’ 107-95 win over the Sixers on Monday after missing their previous matchup in Philadelphia. 

“He’s the head of their snake,” Brett Brown said before the game. “He’s the focal point of their offense and trying to find matchups that can guard him is challenging.”

The Sixers dropped to 24-23, while the Bucks improved to 27-22. 

• Joel Embiid did not play because of his back-to-back restriction. He was made available for consecutive games Sunday, but on Monday he was ruled out after playing 36 minutes the previous night against the Thunder. 

“There was a lot of loading,” Brown said. “There was a lot of up-and-down last night. It was always going to be a decision how we handled him this morning. When you look at it sort of in the totality with all the games coming up, we didn’t feel comfortable putting him in a situation tonight.” 

The Sixers fell to 2-8 without Embiid. They are planning for him to play in his first career back-to-back Friday at home against the Heat and Saturday on the road against the Pacers. He was with the team on the bench in Milwaukee.

• The Sixers shot a dismal 2 for 26 from three-point range. That equates to a mere 7.7 percent. Robert Covington (1 for 8), Dario Saric (0 for 8) and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (0 for 4) took the majority of the attempts. Saric still finished with a team-high 19 points. 

• On the flip side, the Sixers went 21 for 23 at the line. They also limited turnovers to 14 but the Bucks committed only nine. 

• Ben Simmons finished with 16 points, six rebounds and five assists. Covington and Richaun Holmes, who played 23 minutes in Embiid's absence, scored 13 apiece. 

• Khris Middleton had another solid game against the Sixers with 19 points, seven rebounds and six dimes. 

• JJ Redick (leg) and Jerryd Bayless (wrist) did not play. Watch Markelle Fultz (shoulder) go through pregame drills:

• Injury-hampered Bucks forward Jabari Parker was cleared to play this Friday. It will be his first game since suffering an ACL tear last February. 

Hinkie's old boss expected Giannis to be a Sixer

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Hinkie's old boss expected Giannis to be a Sixer

The 2013 NBA draft was one of the strangest in recent memory. There was no consensus first overall pick, which is how Anthony Bennett happens.

Nerlens Noel was viewed as a candidate to be the top pick before tearing his ACL late in his lone college season. The Sixers, then under Sam Hinkie, bought the upside on Noel and traded Jrue Holiday for the sixth overall pick to take him. 

Five picks later, the Sixers took another big, athletic, upside-based player in Michael Carter-Williams.

Four picks after that ... Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Hinkie's boss before the protege left for Philly, said on The Bill Simmons Podcast this week that he was convinced the Sixers were set to take Giannis.

"I was actually really surprised Philly didn't take him," Morey said. "They ended up taking the Rookie of the Year (MCW) so they did fine. But [Giannis] was this super-high-upside guy. We had bet that [Hinkie] might take [Giannis] because we were like, 'Super-high upside, might as well go for it.'"

Could you even begin to imagine ...

Keep in mind, though, that these types of what-if conversations require more context. Had the Sixers taken Giannis then, they're probably not bad enough to pick high enough to get Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in two of the next three years. (Same concept to remember whenever someone says the Sixers should have taken Kristaps Porzingis over Jahlil Okafor. Of course they should have, but if you draft Porzingis, you don't get Simmons.)

Giannis was by far the best player in that draft, with Rudy Gobert (27th), C.J. McCollum (10th) and Victor Oladipo (2nd) the only other standouts. Otto Porter (3), Dennis Schroder (17) and Steven Adams (12) are good players, but that's pretty much it. Everyone else in that 2013 draft is either a fringe rotational player, a non-factor or out of the league. 

That was a rough draft for GMs to navigate, as opposed to the year before when Anthony Davis was the consensus No. 1 and Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Andre Drummond were all top-10 picks. The only surprise outside the top 10 that previous year was Draymond Green, a huge steal but one of the only steals of 2012.

The Giannis draft (2013) was Hinkie's first as the Sixers' GM. Though Hinkie was a swing-for-the-fences type, perhaps even he couldn't justify trading an established player in Holiday for the ultimate risk-reward player in Antetokounmpo. Not many execs had seen the Greek Freak more than a few times, and it was difficult to gauge how his work against inferior competition would translate to the best league on Earth.

Alas ...

Hinkie's final days
Morey clearly still rides for Hinkie, and he had an interesting take on how his former colleague's tenure with the Sixers ended.

Should Hinkie have been more front-facing?

"If you know it's gonna end how it's gonna end, I think he would say for sure," Morey said when Simmons referred to Hinkie as "Howard Hughes-ish." 

"He felt like he had ownership's support there to execute on the plan and part of the plan was to not be as out there, especially during the down times," Morey continued. "Sam can be more communicative, it's just he thinks it's better for the team, especially at that point when he was there, it didn't make sense to be that communicative.

"That said, if he knew he didn't have the support (from ownership) that he thought he had, I'm sure he would have been out there more.

"Hopefully, someone will give him a shot. I think he can obviously help a lot of teams."

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

Now that the dust has settled on the NBA's All-Star festivities, the Sixers will reconvene this week and turn their attention back to the playoff push.

With 27 games remaining in the regular season over a 49-day stretch, it will be a sprint to the finish.

So how can the Sixers capture their first postseason berth in six seasons? Let's take a look at what the team needs more and less of down the stretch.

More: Healthy Embiid
What injury? Joel Embiid shook off right ankle soreness to participate in three events during All-Star weekend as a shining representation of the up-and-coming Sixers.

"There was never really a thought about missing out on any of these events," Embiid said Friday after the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars game. "It's my first time, so I'm going to have fun."

The big man is always about having fun, but now it's time to get down to business. Even though the Sixers' competition appears to lighten up after the break, the schedule does not (27 games with six back-to-back sets).

The Sixers are 27-17 when Embiid plays and just 3-8 when he doesn't suit up. They need the center healthy and on the court.

Less: Turnovers
Way less, actually. 

As you know by now, the Sixers have a bit of an issue holding onto the basketball. They simply don't respect each possession enough, evidenced by their 17.5 turnovers per game. That's good enough for dead last in the NBA and it's a full 1.5 turnovers more than the closest team (Los Angeles Lakers).

And it's not just the miscues. Teams are capitalizing, too — the Sixers also rank 30th in opponents' points off turnovers (19.4).

Of the "Four Factors" statistic on the offensive end, which breaks down weighted factors that help a team win a game — shooting (40 percent), turnovers (25 percent), rebounding (20 percent) and free throws (15 percent) — the only category that the Sixers rank outside of the NBA's top 10 in is turnovers.

If they can cut down on the giveaways just a little, it will go a long way toward their goal.

More: Early execution
However, not all of those possessions end up with the Sixers running back on defense after a turnover.

With more legit scoring options on the roster this season than any previous time during Brett Brown's tenure, they have shown the ability to execute a play to perfection for a bucket.

It's a stark contrast to the days when they couldn't even get the ball in on an inbounds play.

That level of scoring punch has been particularly evident at the start of games. The Sixers are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth in the league in first-quarter points per game (28.7) and are even with the L.A. Clippers for seventh in first-half points a night (55.2).

The Sixers must continue to apply that pressure on teams at the outset of games, especially if their woes finishing off opponents is going to persist.

Less: Bad Covington
Ah, the curious case of Robert Covington.

Has any player in NBA history ever looked like they could make a push for an All-Star spot for two months only to appear as if they belong in the G League the next few months?

Covington has always been a streaky shooter, but this season has been extreme. He shot 44.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range in October and November to help secure his multiyear extension. 

Since that point, the swingman has connected on just 37.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long distance.

Whether it's the weight of the big contract or the nasty spill he took against the Cavs in December, Covington hasn't looked the same on the floor in several months. The team needs him to get it together and the sooner the better.

More: Killer D's
While Embiid's presence on both ends and Ben Simmons' wizardry at the point have put the Sixers in position to snag a playoff bid, the team didn't really hit its stride until a certain pairing found its footing: Dario Saric and defense.

Much like his rookie season, Saric struggled to find his role at the start. But that's long in the rearview mirror now. The second-year forward has increased his production each month and has been rolling so far in February (18.6 points, 51.7 percent field goals, 46.3 percent threes, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game).

That surge has coincided with the Sixers' tightened grip on defense. In seven games this month, they've allowed 96.1 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting.

The type of balance Saric offers offensively and the overall lockdown defense won't only make the Sixers a postseason team, it will also make them a tough out. 

Less: Fultz speculation
This is a big deal that the Sixers could make very small with a clear decision on the No. 1 pick's immediate future.

Markelle Fultz reportedly continues to ramp up his rehab workouts for his ailing shoulder, even after team president Bryan Colangelo said earlier this month that the guard could return soon or be shut down for the season.

The franchise should obviously give Fultz every chance to come back and contribute, but that ruling should be made at the first opportunity.

It's after the All-Star break and having that type of deliberation hovering over the team isn't exactly fair to the other players. Not to mention, for a guy that has apparently dealt with questions regarding his confidence, possibly dropping him into the thick of a playoff race doesn't really do him any favors either.