The first half of Wednesday night's game at Wells Fargo Center seemed too good to be true for the Sixers.
They led the Bucks by as many as 19 points in the second quarter and appeared well on their way to a seventh straight victory. Milwaukee was never out of the game, though, with the Sixers unable to make a decisive run. The Bucks overtook the Sixers in the fourth quarter and, up by seven with 52.8 seconds left, looked to have a win secure.
However, the Sixers had an improbable comeback of their own in store, capped by Furkan Korkmaz’s game-tying three-pointer with 0.4 seconds left. He sunk an open shot from the left corner after Donte DiVincenzo flew past him.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (32 points, 15 rebounds and five assists) was the best player on the floor in overtime, leading the Bucks to a wild 109-105 win.
Tobias Harris had 19 points on 8-for-23 shooting and nine rebounds, while Ben Simmons posted a triple-double with 13 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds. Simmons made a three-pointer with 0.9 seconds left in overtime, his third of the season.
Seth Curry limped back to the locker room with 7:23 left in the fourth period after slipping near the basket on a fast break. He sprained his left ankle, the Sixers announced, and did not return.
Head coach Doc Rivers was unsure of Curry's status moving forward.
“He was in the locker room," Rivers said after the game. “I don’t think it’s a bad sprain. I think it’s a sprained ankle but I don’t think it’s severe or anything like that — but I don’t know that.”
The Sixers will conclude their four-game homestand Saturday against the Kings.
Here are three observations on their overtime loss to Milwaukee:
Simmons and Sixers stymie Antetokounmpo in first half
Antetokounmpo had four points and four turnovers at halftime.
Sixers fans gave him a loud, mocking cheer after he air-balled a three-point try late in the first half with the Sixers leading by 18 points. The “Greek Freak” air-balled his first shot of the second half, too, as Simmons blocked off his path to the rim and watched his fadeaway jumper come up well short.
Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Giannis’ brother) was called for a technical foul early in the third quarter. Neither brother was pleased with the officiating, though the Bucks ended up taking 16 more foul shots than the Sixers, who only attempted eight.
Simmons had an off shooting night, missing a few decent looks around the basket and hitting 6 of 16 field goals.
Embiid, who watched the game from the Sixers bench in an orange hoodie and slippers as he rehabs from a left knee bone bruise, was the Sixers’ main defender on Antetokounmpo last season, helping limit him to an 8-for-27 shooting performance in the team’s Christmas win over Milwaukee.
Simmons has proven himself to be among the league’s most versatile defenders and was certainly up for this challenge, even though Antetokoumpo was tremendous in the second half and overtime.
“The times Ben was on him, we couldn’t have guarded that any better," Rivers said. “I thought (the Bucks) did a pretty good job of getting Ben to switch off of him, and I thought a lot of that was fatigue, too, on Ben’s part. Several of them he probably didn’t have to switch — we didn’t want him to.
“But you could see the toll of last night’s game in that fourth quarter. When you see Tobias and Furk and Seth and Shake (Milton) missing wide-open shots, all front rim, that’s not good for your offense. But we got them. I don’t leave this game discouraged, let me put it that way.”
Early defensive excellence not enough
The Bucks scored only 31 first-half points. They shot 26.7 percent from the floor and 1 for 17 from three-point territory.
Those numbers are rare to see in the modern NBA, especially for a team that had averaged over 130 points per game since the All-Star break. While there was some good fortune involved for the Sixers with every Bucks player being cold from long range simultaneously, the team’s defensive effort and commitment were outstanding across the board.
The Bucks were without backup point guard DJ Augustin after reportedly sending him to Houston in a trade for P.J. Tucker. That might help explain some of their first-half offensive woes, although the Sixers played a huge part.
Danny Green, who scored 18 points in the game, drew an early charge on Antetokounmpo, establishing that Simmons wouldn’t be the only body in his way. Every Bucks opponent intends to wall off Antetokounmpo and prevent him from gaining downhill momentum, but it’s an incredibly difficult task.
Harris also deserves individual credit for playing strong defense on Khris Middleton, who scored 15 points on 6-for-16 shooting. On one third-quarter play, Harris slid his feet to cut off Middleton’s drive and then simply ripped the ball from his hands.
Asked pregame if Harris has improved defensively since he coached him on the Clippers, Rivers had no hesitation.
“Definitely,” he said. “This year, I’m telling you he just came in engaged. It’s the things we talked about over the summer ... that he could do better. Be a better passer — he’s been an amazing passer this year. Be a better rebounder — he’s been an unbelievable rebounder. Be a better defender — he’s done all three. All three of those have been ticked off for him. Quick decisions, he’s doing that. He’s been great for us.”
It was inevitable that the Bucks would start clicking offensively, and they indeed improved after halftime. Milwaukee took a 78-76 lead on an Antetokounmpo dunk with 8:18 remaining.
Physically and mentally, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks wear opponents down. That’s not an excuse for blowing a 19-point lead, though, as the Sixers could’ve sealed this game with better second-half execution. It was unfortunate and costly that their own outside shooting problems coincided with the Bucks finding an offensive groove.
Embiid's absence, Curry's injury and playing on the second night of a back-to-back all contributed to the loss, as well.
“I think we were definitely fatigued out there come the fourth quarter," Harris said. “High-emotion game yesterday. ... Throughout the game, we had the looks we wanted. They just didn’t fall. I know myself, I would have taken all those shots that I got. I still thought we put ourselves in a position to win the game. It didn’t go our way. We’ll rest up and get ready for the next one.”
Howard features in another physical contest
Dwight Howard has enjoyed the experience of playing in front of fans at Wells Fargo Center. The feeling appears mutual for those who have watched the 35-year-old do his thing — swat shots, grab offensive rebounds, screen, roll and smile while doing all of it — at an impressive level.
When Tony Bradley picked up two early fouls, Rivers turned to Howard sooner than usual. Howard has been at the center of good things for the Sixers often since the All-Star break, with Rivers joking Tuesday that he must have been rejuvenated by “the drinks he had in Puerto Rico or wherever he went for the break.”
In addition to his typical hustle and enthusiasm, Howard did a solid job anchoring the Sixers’ defense. Milwaukee struggled to score with him on the floor in the first half as the Sixers built a 35-20 lead.
Whenever Howard asked for a little more volume from the fans, they were happy to oblige.
“I’ve been loving every minute of having the fans in the stadium," Howard said. “It means so much to me. For me, I know that everybody’s been at home during COVID and now they get a chance to come back and see their team play. I just try to provide some energy and get the crowd into it, because we miss these guys. We miss our fans, we miss seeing them at the games.
“I personally enjoy it; it brings me so much joy and energy to see the crowd. I’m just grateful. I’m grateful that the fans have been very appreciative of my hard work and energy and effort. When I get on the court, it’s like I’ve got to hold myself to a higher standard, because all of the fans are looking for me to come out and play with energy and effort every night.”
Howard and Bobby Portis were each called for technical fouls late in the third quarter as the game’s physicality ratcheted up with the Bucks looking to stage their comeback. Rivers said he liked that Howard was an "instigator" and called his performance "awesome."
Another takeaway for the Sixers on the center front: Rivers used Simmons at the five for the final 4:02 of the first half. Milwaukee also didn’t have any conventional centers on the floor, so perhaps it was a situation where the Sixers felt Simmons’ athleticism was a better fit than Bradley’s size.
The Bucks outscored the Sixers by one point during that stretch, trailing the Sixers by 14 at halftime. They trimmed that lead to nine points heading into the fourth quarter and ultimately did enough to improve to 26-14. The Sixers and Nets are both 28-13, 1.5 games ahead of Milwaukee.