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

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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 vs. Bucks: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Bucks: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Thursday night could be a potential second-round playoff preview. It could also be another game of rest for a couple of the Sixers’ stars.

Coming off two disappointing performances, the Sixers (49-29) return home to face off against the team with the best record in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks (58-20). While Jimmy Butler (back tightness) has been ruled out, Joel Embiid (left knee soreness) is a game-time decision and JJ Redick (left quad contusion) will play.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Looking for No. 50 and the three-seed

The Sixers are still stuck on 49 wins and have yet to secure the Eastern Conference’s third seed. With one more victory, they’ll clinch their first back-to-back 50-win seasons since 1984-85 and 1985-86. Their magic number to clinch the three-seed is two, meaning any combination of Sixers’ wins and Celtics’ losses equaling two gets them there. 

Even if the Sixers fall to the Bucks on Thursday, they still face off against the Bulls twice. For those of you that don’t know, Chicago is all-in on the tank for the rest of the season, basically sending out a G-League squad.

Monroe’s debut?

The Sixers on Thursday signed veteran center Greg Monroe. The nine-year veteran will be available for tonight’s game. Whether he sees any action will be something to watch. It’s no secret that the Sixers’ backup center situation is murky. Boban Marjanovic gives the Sixers efficient play on the offensive end, but is liability defensively. Jonah Bolden has all the traits you want for a modern NBA five, but shows the inconsistency of a rookie.

Monroe isn’t exactly a dynamo on the defensive end either so it’s hard to ascertain what he can do that Marjanovic can’t. It certainly didn’t hurt to take a flyer on Monroe and they waived player in Justin Patton that didn’t figure to help them in the playoffs. It’ll be interesting to see how Brett Brown views Monroe and his possible role.

The Process vs. The Greek Freak?

As a basketball fan, you have to hope we get to see this matchup again. On March 17, the All-Stars combined to score 92 of the game’s points. Brown threw out an interesting wrinkle, having Embiid guard MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. It worked in the first half, but Antetokounmpo got his when Embiid wasn’t on the floor and then started going right into Embiid’s chest in the second half.

Is Embiid’s fitness level good enough to chase Antetokounmpo around for 30-plus minutes? Probably not. But kudos to Brown for throwing something different at the Bucks. Now after seeing how head coach Mike Budenholzer and Milwaukee adjusted in that game, let’s see Brown’s response.

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Sixers 130, Bucks 125: Sixers take down NBA-best Bucks, clinch playoff spot

Sixers 130, Bucks 125: Sixers take down NBA-best Bucks, clinch playoff spot

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As far as beating elite teams goes, it doesn't get much better than beating the team with the best record in the NBA.

The Sixers recorded their most impressive win of the season, beating the Bucks, 130-125, at Fiserv Forum on national TV Sunday afternoon.

There's been a lot made of the Sixers' inability to beat the Eastern Conference's best, but in just the seventh game with their new-look starting five, they put the league on notice.

The win not only improves the Sixers to 45-25, but with the Hornets' loss to the Heat, it clinches a playoff spot. More importantly, the victory keeps them in the driver's seat for the East's third seed.

Here are observations from the huge win:

• Well, this was certainly an interesting strategy by Brett Brown. Brown had Joel Embiid cover MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo — and Embiid did all he could. Embiid just gave the Greek Freak a ton of space, daring him to take threes. It worked better in the first half, but Antetokounmpo still scored a career-high 52 points and hit 3 of 8 from three. Still, it’s how you should play him. He’s going to get his. He's really freaking good.

Playing this way forces the Bucks’ role players to step up — which they can do — but it’s wise to let them bomb threes rather than allowing Antetokounmpo to do his thing driving to the basket.

Give Brown credit. It was an outside-the-box approach and it worked well early. Again, you're only going to keep a player like Antetokounmpo contained for so long, though I thought Brown got away from the strategy too often in the second half.

• While Brown appears to have found the personnel for his rotation, he’s still sorting who to play with who.

We got another look at the Embiid-Ben Simmons pairing and the Jimmy Butler-Tobias Harris pairing. The Simmons-Embiid-led unit has taken its lumps, while Butler and Harris played with the bench trio of Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and T.J. McConnell.

• There were a few undisciplined moments that were concerning when you’re going up against a team with the best record in the NBA.

The Sixers played a tremendous first quarter, but it ended on a sour note. With just a second remaining, Antetokounmpo grabbed a defensive rebound and pushed the ball to half court for a desperation heave. For some insane reason, McConnell reached in and fouled him. You don’t foul anyone taking a heave, let alone a guy who’s not a great outside shooter.

Most of the eight turnovers in the first half were of the unforced variety. It’s something the team needs to be more cognizant of in general, but especially against a team the caliber of the Bucks. They did a better job with just five turnovers after halftime.

• While Embiid likely has no chance at MVP, this was yet another game that demonstrated how valuable he is to the Sixers. How many seven-foot centers would you trust to put on a player like Antetokounmpo? Probably none other than Embiid.

He got off to a slow start offensively and settled for way too many threes, going 4 of 13 — he did, however, hit an enormous three with under a minute to go. When he put the ball on the floor, he found more success. There was one play in which he crossed up Antetokounmpo and had a beautiful finish on a floater along the baseline.

Again, the chances of him winning the MVP are slim, but he put on a show against one of the favorites for the award on national TV. He finished with 40 points (15 of 31), 15 rebounds and six assists. He also added three steals and a block.

• JJ Redick was sensational. He broke a Sixers franchise record with his 198th made three in the first half. There really wasn’t much Milwaukee could do. It was just one of those games where Redick was hitting everything — threes off screens, pull-up mid-range jumpers, off-balance shots of all kinds.

He poured in 19 points on 7 of 10 and a perfect 4 of 4 from three and was a thorn in the Bucks’ side all day. It's clear his post-All-Star break slump is well behind him.

• Simmons struggled to score with Antetokounmpo on him, but was efficient, going 4 of 8 for eight points.

He did have this ridiculous dunk on Brook Lopez though.

Simmons was OK overall (nine rebounds, nine assists), but Simmons struggling to score against good defensive teams continues to be an issue. He still provides strong defense and you have to hope the Sixers' abundance of firepower will help mitigate that.

• It appears we can put the "Jimmy Butler defers too much" narrative to rest for now. Butler took plenty of shots, going 8 of 16 for 27 points. He wasn't spectacular offensively early, but Butler the closer was huge down the stretch.

Defensively, this was the second game in a row he was a difference maker, getting three steals, but more importantly his activity level was high and he's looked better and better as an on-the-ball defender.

• Harris was quiet in this one, going just 4 of 7 for 12 points, but let's not start a "Tobias Harris defers too much" narrative. The beauty of the Sixers' new starting five is the unselfishness of the group. They all know Embiid is their best player so naturally he's going to put up a ton of shots. But on Sunday, Redick had it going so the other three starters played a lesser role. This is the way it's going to be when you have this much offensive talent. It's a wonderful problem to have.

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