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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