The Sixers’ second game after the All-Star break could have gone worse, but not by much.
They were blown out Saturday night in Milwaukee by the NBA-best Bucks, 119-98, and Ben Simmons left the game in the first quarter because of injury.
The loss drops the Sixers to 35-22, 9-20 on the road. Up next are the Hawks on Monday night (7 p.m./NBCSP).
Simmons irritates injury
Simmons, who’d missed the Sixers’ game Thursday vs. the Nets with lower back soreness, exited after playing 4:44 and irritating the injury.
He paused and bent down after drawing a foul on Brook Lopez, then made 1 of 2 free throws. Matisse Thybulle then took a foul on Khris Middleton to ensure Simmons could check out and go back to the locker room.
Heading into Saturday’s contest, Simmons had played 213 of a possible 220 regular-season games over the past three seasons. The 23-year-old All-Star leads the NBA in steals and is quite obviously an integral piece for the Sixers.
Other injury scares
Tobias Harris grabbed at his right knee and limped back up the floor following a missed layup attempt in the second quarter.
Though Harris stayed in the game, it was an alarming sight, especially in the context of Simmons’ injury and Harris’ immediate reaction without any contact. He didn’t seem to be moving as well as usual after the incident.
At the end of the half, Joel Embiid missed a tip-in off an Alec Burks layup, then appeared to grimace and hold his lower back. He didn’t miss any action.
The Sixers entered the game with no players on the injury report, but, by the end of the first half, their overall team health was a matter of concern.
The backup plan
Shake Milton (17 points on 5 of 9 shooting) slid into the point guard spot when Simmons exited, sharing a backcourt with Josh Richardson early in the second quarter. The Sixers then inserted Burks in place of starter Glenn Robinson III. That lineup — with Harris and Embiid in the frontcourt — was the same one that had won the Sixers Thursday’s game in overtime.
Again, Simmons’ injury had an impact on the team’s rotations, so it wouldn’t make sense to come to any grand conclusions. That said, the exclusion of Raul Neto until the game was out of hand is notable. Neto had started in Simmons' place Thursday.
The inclination to try the Sixers’ three most capable pick-and-roll guards in the same lineup also suggests a desire to maximize that skill set, which is not at all surprising.
Throughout the entire season, the Sixers have been looking for players who can handle the ball, create their own shots and run a pick-and-roll. They’re hoping that Burks, who impressed with 19 points Thursday, can help in an area where they’ve been consistently lacking. Burks did not play well Saturday, shooting 3 of 13. On one third-quarter sequence, he quickly undid the good fortune of a banked-in three by missing a free throw and fouling Middleton on the ensuing possession.
Mike Scott, a DNP vs. Brooklyn, appeared in the second half with the Sixers down double digits.
Neither Embiid nor the Sixers started the game well. Embiid was scoreless in the first quarter and the Sixers shot 8 of 25 as a team from the field (1 of 9 from three-point range).
He was aggressive in the second quarter, scoring 12 points, getting to the foul line seven times and temporarily giving the Sixers a form of reliable half-court offense. The Sixers also did well to defend the Bucks without fouling in the first half, holding a big free throw attempt advantage (14-2) and staying close despite their continued outside shooting struggles.
That quarter was the only real positive of the night for Embiid or the Sixers. Embiid picked up his third and fourth fouls early in the third quarter, and the Sixers’ deficit grew with him on the bench. As a comeback win without Simmons looked more and more unlikely, the defensive effort deteriorated.
Embiid hit 5 of 18 field goals and had 11 rebounds, four assists and four turnovers. He’s now made 11 of his last 44 shots in Milwaukee.
The Sixers shot a season-worst 35 percent from the field. Al Horford was just 1 for 7.
The reigning MVP dominates
Embiid and Horford split defensive duties on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP again made it very clear that his 8-of-27 Christmas shooting effort against the Sixers was an anomaly with 31 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes.
Thursday night, Embiid had said, “The All-Star Game is just proving that I’m here, I belong, and being the best player in the world.”
Antetokounmpo played like the best player in the world Saturday.
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