Bucks 128, Sixers 122: In Joel Embiid's return, Sixers fail to close out NBA-best Bucks

Bucks 128, Sixers 122: In Joel Embiid's return, Sixers fail to close out NBA-best Bucks


The return of Joel Embiid wasn't quite enough.

The Sixers couldn't close out the NBA-best Bucks, surrendering 46 fourth-quarter points in a 128-122 loss at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday night.

The Sixers blew a two-point lead with 1:38 left in the game. The loss drops them to 49-30 on the season.

Jimmy Butler (back tightness) and James Ennis (right quad contusion) were both out. Ennis will remain out and be reevaluated in two weeks.

Here are observations from the game:

• The fun started less than three minutes into the game. Embiid and Eric Bledsoe were fighting for position on a shot. After it went in, Bledsoe gave Embiid an extra shove. Embiid took exception and tossed the ball at Bledsoe. Bledsoe then did his best impression of Bryce Harper gunning down a runner at the plate, firing the ball back at Embiid. Mike Scott then tossed the ball back at Bledsoe and approached the Bucks’ guard, which caused a scrum.

It was something.

After the dust settled, Embiid and Scott were each hit with a technical while Bledsoe received two and was tossed from the game. It might’ve been excessive to eject Bledose, but it was a break for the Sixers.

• Embiid hadn’t played in a week and it showed early on. The All-Star center was rusty and settling for too many jumpers, taking six threes in the first half. The crowd actually groaned when he pump faked from three after missing his last two attempts.

But my goodness, did he turn it on when the team needed him.

Defensively, it’s amazing what a difference Embiid — and a little effort — can make. Brett Brown again used Embiid on MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak still got his, pouring in 45 points. Antetokounmpo did a lot of his damage at the foul line, going 16 of 21.

It just looks like defending him this way throws off the rest of Milwaukee’s offense. The Bucks tried to run some pick-and-roll — because why wouldn't you after what you saw last night in Atlanta — with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, but Ben Simmons did an excellent job fighting through screens and staying with Middleton.

The defensive effort until late in the fourth was the best we've seen from this team since the last game Embiid played. With that said, Antetokounmpo showed why he's an MVP candidate, coming up with a huge block on Embiid down the stretch.

Embiid did come down funny and favored his ankle toward the end of the first half and went to the locker room with under two minutes to play. He appeared no worse for wear in the second half — especially in the fourth quarter. He had his second career triple-double with 34 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists. You can try to tell me this dude isn't an MVP candidate, but my eyes tell me differently.

• JJ Redick had a fun battle going on with Pat Connaughton. The Bucks’ guard has serious sandpaper to his game and was in Redick’s shorts every chance he got. It seemed to get a rise out of Redick, who hit 4 of 5 from three in the first half. He also beat George Hill on two backdoor cuts early in the second half. He finished with 29 points on 5 of 9 from three and 10 of 15 overall.

Watching Redick up close, you get such an appreciation for what he does on a nightly basis. He runs a marathon every night and it got a little nasty out there Thursday. But you get the feeling that’s the way Redick likes it.

• I liked what I saw out of the pick-and-roll with Embiid and Tobias Harris. It’s puzzling that the Sixers don't run more of it. It got Harris, who actually ran the point at times for the third straight game, a bunch of decent looks. There's little downside in getting two of your most offensively gifted players in actions together. Harris shot just 6 of 15 for 13 points.

• Scott got the start in place of Butler and came up huge. He'd been in a bit of a shooting slump, going 0 for 8 in the last two games and shooting below 30 percent from three over his last 13 games. He was unconscious Thursday, hitting 6 of 8, and was also solid defensively on the Bucks' secondary options.

• If I had told you opening night that Zhaire Smith and Shake Milton would be sharing the floor together for Game 79 against the team with the best record in the NBA, you would’ve called me crazy. But here we are. What a time to be alive.

Not only did the rookies get run, but they looked like useful NBA players at times. On his first touch at the Wells Fargo Center, Smith took a three with no hesitation and nailed it. You can just see the otherworldly athleticism Smith possesses. He’s so explosive and gets off the ground so quickly. 

On a drive baseline, Smith tried to dunk on Antetokounmpo, but was turned away. But as Antetokounmpo took the ball the other way, Milton got back in transition and tied up the All-Star for a jump ball. Credit to Smith, he went right back at Antetokounmpo a couple possessions later to no avail. The kid is definitely fearless.

At times, the pair looked like chickens with their heads cut off, but they played their tails off. Smith made a great defensive play on a steal in the fourth quarter and then blew a wide-open finish on the other end. Definitely an ill-timed rookie moment.

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Sixers players show support for new WNBA CBA

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Sixers players show support for new WNBA CBA

The WNBA and players union made huge strides on Tuesday when they came to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement that increases pay, improves travel accommodations, and provides better support for motherhood, amongst additional improvements.

It also brought awareness to those, including myself, that didn’t fully realize the extent for the limited support WNBA players receive.

For many, what might’ve seemed standard, are huge wins for the WNBA.

A brief overview:

• Seats now upgraded to economy plus or comfort plus (players will still travel commercial).

• Individual hotel rooms on the road (prior, this was reserved only for veterans).

• Full salary while on maternity leave (in the old CBA, a player could earn as little as half of her base salary if she missed the season due to pregnancy or childbirth).

• Significant salary bump for league’s highest-paid players (from an annual base salary of $117,500 to $215,000).

• Minimum salary for players with two years (or less) experience increased to $57,000 (from $41,965), and for three years (or more) to $68,000 (from $56,375).

• Potential to earn 50-50 revenue split with the league (currently estimated around 20 percent. In the NBA, it is near 50-50).

Sixers guard Josh Richardson voiced his support to NBC Sports Philadelphia on Wednesday.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Richardson said of the new CBA. “The last CBA was not super player friendly and I’m glad to see they get a bigger percentage and hopefully it can just keep increasing.”

“As a basketball player, I have sisters who play and who have put just as many hours as myself to play the game,” Tobias Harris said. “I think it’s good that now they can have an upgrade in pay to entice them for what they do, and I think it’s great they came to an agreement on that, and it’s well overdue.”

“I think it’s a huge step and I hope it continues because there are some other things that we want them to continue to get and showcase,” Al Horford said. “I was very happy when I saw the news that they would be getting some of those just basic things that they absolutely deserve.”

One of the biggest issues surrounding the WNBA is the fact that so many women have to go play overseas in their “offseason,” to be able to make a decent living.

This means that many professional women’s basketball players are playing year-round, something that Horford said he realized after training with Diana Taurasi early in his NBA career.

“No. 1, I think about the travel, and No. 2, having to play a sport year-round, and the fact that now the salaries have increased, I think that will help, maybe them not wanting to go overseas and playing so much.”

Under the new CBA, the average salaries are expected to increase to $130,000.

“It’s a grind,” Horford said. “I couldn’t imagine playing a full NBA season, and then having to go play overseas in the summer. I think it’s a huge step and we hope that things continue to fall in line because of that.”

Mention that full maternity leave was not part of the old CBA and players' eyes widen.

“That was ridiculous,” Harris said.

“It’s messed up,” Richardson said. “I just don’t think it’s how it should be working …”

“That was crazy,” Shake Milton said. “I don’t understand, they have to put everything on hold and have a child and don’t get paid? That’s wild to me.”

“I didn’t know all of that, but now I do know,” said Raul Neto. “It’s crazy.”

There’s one area where we can all agree.

“Changes that were long overdue,” Milton said.

“That deal should have been in place a long time ago,” Harris said.

“I just think a lot of people need to wake up and see that if you genuinely like basketball, you would have to like the WNBA. I think with this deal, more and more people should have appreciation for what they’re doing.”

And the future looks a little brighter for young girls wanting to be professional basketball players.

“I think it’s a big step for young girls that want to be basketball players, because if you want to be a basketball player and you see all the struggles, it’s something that kind of makes you step out of sports,” Neto said.

“It will be so good for the game of basketball in general, and for younger girls growing up, that can look at it as an outlet,” Milton said. “Before, a lot of people might not have stuck to it or chose that path just because of that. They deserve it, so it’s huge.”

“Those girls can play, they can really play,” Horford said. “Honestly, I’m just very happy that they are going to get more fair opportunities.”

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More questions than answers when it comes to Sixers' bench

More questions than answers when it comes to Sixers' bench

The trades for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris were blockbuster deals, but both hurt the Sixers’ depth.

GM Elton Brand did manage to get veterans Mike Scott and James Ennis, both of whom played significant roles during the Sixers’ playoff run. Still, the team had no viable backup for Joel Embiid and Brett Brown was essentially going with seven players by Game 7 in Toronto. 

By bringing back Scott and Ennis, trading up in the draft to acquire Matisse Thybulle and bringing in veteran big Kyle O’Quinn, Brand seemed to fortify the team’s depth.

So much for that.

We’re 42 games into the 2019-20 season and the Sixers are looking for answers off their bench.

We're trying to establish a little bit more consistency from that area,” Brett Brown said after practice Thursday. “And at times that you can't, you better have answers. And although we have the answers, not really anybody has just stamped their foot and said, 'This is mine.' And you hope over time, that happens. In the event that it doesn't, we're going to play this thing out and try to be wiser and smarter in the final third of the year as the run to the playoffs gets closer.

There have been times that we’ve seen flashes. 

Thybulle has shown elite disruption abilities at the defensive end, but still looks like a rookie every so often. Furkan Korkmaz’s hot stretches have helped carry the team at times, but he’s been inconsistent and has shortcomings on the defensive end.

Even the stable veterans haven’t been so stable. Though he hasn’t necessarily played poorly, O’Quinn is essentially fourth on the depth chart at center behind Joel Embiid, Al Horford and two-way player Norvel Pelle. Scott and Ennis, who gave the Sixers what they needed in the series against the Raptors, haven’t quite been the same players.

In fact, with Scott struggling so much recently, Brown opted to use Ennis at the four just a game after Ennis was a DNP-CD in Indiana.

Oddly enough, the rookie may be the one player that has a rotational spot locked up.

Wednesday night’s win was a perfect example of what you get when Thybulle is at his best. While he’s made momentum-shifting defensive plays, what stood out against the Nets was just his ability to defend.

He was tasked with guarding the super slippery Kyrie Irving and the sharpshooting Joe Harris. He did quite well as both players were victims of Thybulle’s four blocked shots.

It hasn’t always been a smooth process. Brown has admitted that he’s had to increase his tolerance level with the 22-year-old’s gambles. For his part, Thybulle understands why his playing time was so up and down early in the season.

Brown has rewarded him by allowing him to close out games and take on tough assignments.

It's kind of been a process of just earning his trust,” Thybulle said. “I think in the beginning I didn't deserve a lot of it. He's allowed me to play through a lot of mistakes, to make those mistakes, so that I don't have to make them at times like this in the fourth quarter of big games against talented players.

There’s no denying the impact Thybulle has had on this team. When he plays at least 14:29 this season, the Sixers are 20-4. Not the largest sample size, but a pretty decent one.

Part of Brown’s thinking for starting Thybulle Wednesday was to simply get him the experience. The other part of it is that he earned it.

“I felt like Matisse, two reasons,” Brown said, “would come in and give us a better base to start the game defensively, and second, it is most definitely on my mind to increase his role to give him more responsibility/minutes in whatever is a rational way to deliver him to the playoffs where he has an actual role. And I see that happening now.”

So Thybulle is in. But who else? 

Ennis? Scott? Korkmaz? A player not on the roster that could arrive before the Feb. 6 trade deadline?

Not even the Sixers have that answer right now.

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