76ers

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

BOX SCORE

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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How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

How will all the pieces fit? More ‘fair questions’ face Brett Brown, Sixers’ offense

There are a good number of “Brett Brown-isms” — phrases distinct to the Sixers’ head coach or terms he’ll turn to often in talking with the media. Out of them all, “It’s a fair question” might best encapsulate the second half of the 2018-19 season.

Brown faced a lot of fair questions about Jimmy Butler’s role in the offense, his efforts to add more pick-and-roll and isolation, where Tobias Harris fit and much more.

Some games, it all made sense. Butler ran the show at the point with a heavy emphasis on ball screens, Ben Simmons did damage in transition and Joel Embiid was a weapon in the post. But often, the pieces didn’t quite work together. The half-court offense was nightmarish in the final few minutes of that devastating Game 7 in Toronto, when the shot clock seemed to always be ticking down the last couple of seconds.

Not as well as they should’ve,” Harris said Friday when asked whether all the pieces ever connected. “We had good little spurts of it, but they weren’t really consistent for us. I felt like we got out of it as much as we could’ve in that timeframe with the different types of games, different types of personalities or whatnot. We needed more time. We needed more time, we needed more cohesiveness. That’s something that we have now, so we have to really maximize that fully.

The Sixers do indeed have time now, with their new starting five all under contract through at least the next two seasons, and they have some different questions to answer.

“I look forward to training camp, figure all that out,” Elton Brand said Friday. “Defensively, of course that’s where we’re going to hang our hat. We should be one of the top defensive teams in the league, in my opinion. But we’ll figure out the spacing. We have a lot of versatility. Al Horford can space, Joel Embiid can space, Ben’s working on his game, Josh is a high-level scorer and Tobias is a high-level shooter and scorer also, so we’re looking forward to making that work in training camp. But it’s going to take some time. It should take some time.”

Brand is probably right that a lot of “figuring it out” will happen in training camp, when his new team will be together for the first time. Still, you’d think Brown and his staff have already started to think about offensive schemes and fit.

Simmons and Harris will likely spend more time with the ball in their hands as a byproduct of Butler’s departure. Harris had occasional opportunities to run late-game, middle pick-and-rolls, but those were mostly a Butler staple. Harris only averaged 3.7 fourth-quarter points per game in the regular season with the Sixers, 2.5 in the playoffs. And, in the rare moments when he was in the spotlight, his pick-and-roll partner was often Boban Marjanovic. Out of all the things that will likely “take some time,” Harris’ pick-and-roll chemistry with Embiid is among the most important. 

For Harris, it will also be key to prove his subpar three-point shooting numbers with the Sixers last season (32.6 percent in the regular season, 34.9 percent in the playoffs) were just a blip. Richardson shot a tick over league average from three at a high volume last year, while Horford should have no problem sliding into a stretch-four role. Embiid’s soft touch and good free throw shooting (80.4 percent in 2018-19) have not translated to efficiency from the outside. Simmons has yet to show — in a game setting — that he should be part of the conversation about the team’s three-point shooting. 

Some of the strategy for Brown won't be too difficult to figure out. His team is huge and has multiple post-up threats, so we should see the Sixers play more “inside-out,” with the offense revolving around Simmons, Embiid or Horford down low. Brown already has post offense principles and spacing in place that aim to play to Embiid and Simmons’ respective strengths (see film review). 

Many elements of the Sixers’ offense will be “organic,” another favorite Brown term. The Sixers should force more than the 12.7 turnovers per game they did last season — 27th in the NBA — and their transition offense should prosper as a result. Zhaire Smith and Matisse Thybulle are two young players who could make a unique impact in that area. 

Other questions for Brown and the Sixers will remain open well into the season. This time around, there’s much greater freedom to explore what does and doesn’t work, and much less pressure to hit on answers immediately.

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Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

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Sixers Talk: Ben Simmons not playing in the World Cup; Mike Scott living his best life

Ben Simmons will not be playing for Team Australia in the World Cup while Mike Scott is living his best life on his 31st birthday. Danny Pommells and Paul Hudrick talk that and sneaky teams in the East on this edition of Sixers Talk.

Simmons is choosing to work on his game for the upcoming NBA season instead of playing in the FIBA World Cup. What are the pros and cons?

Scott and the hive are having a great time on Twitter. Plus, we found out that the Sixers' forward didn't do so hot in French class at UVA.

The Sixers and Bucks appear to be the two top teams in the East. Which team could sneak up on them?

That and more below on this edition of Sixers Talk.