Milwaukee Bucks

A rusty Joel Embiid is better than no Joel Embiid for Sixers

A rusty Joel Embiid is better than no Joel Embiid for Sixers

Players that miss a week of basketball rarely come out and carry their team.

Joel Embiid is not a normal basketball player. He may not even be human.

He was definitely otherworldly Thursday night, posting his second career triple-double in a 128-122 loss to the Bucks at the Wells Fargo Center.

While Embiid was rusty at the start and the game ended on a sour note, you were reminded of how special the All-Star center is.

When you think that he hasn't been with us for eight days, you look at his stat line, it just confirms how dominant he can be,” Brett Brown said. “I think the thing that we feel is we just haven't been playing with each other — you feel uncertain a little bit, a little bit discombobulated at the end when it mattered. I think in general, statistically look at what he did — it's eye-popping.

The shooting numbers weren’t great. Embiid went 12 of 31 from the field and 3 of 9 from three, but scored 14 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter. He recorded his 57th double-double of the season by pulling down 13 rebounds. He was stellar on defense yet again, blocking three shots and getting two steals.

But what probably stood out more than anything was his career-high 13 assists. To put in perspective how special that stat line is, only three players in NBA history have had at least 34 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists and three blocks in a game: Embiid, LeBron James and Magic Johnson.

For as great Embiid has been this season, how he’s handled double teams has been an issue at times. On Thursday, he was excellent recognizing the doubles and making quick decisions. His teammates rewarded him by hitting 18 of 36 from three.

You want your best player to be healthy and in a rhythm,” JJ Redick, who went 10 of 15 for 29 points, said. “Obviously, not playing for a week, at times he looked a little rusty. He still had a monster game because he’s one of the five best players in the world.

Embiid’s health is obviously paramount, but think about what he was able to do. He didn’t play a game for a week, then stepped into a playoff-like atmosphere against the team with the best record in the NBA and nearly carried his team to a win.

It’s fair to point out that both teams came into this one undermanned. The Sixers were missing Jimmy Butler and James Ennis who’s dealing with a right quad contusion that will keep him out at least two weeks. The Bucks didn’t have Malcolm Brogdon or Nikola Mirotic, among others.

Embiid made Milwaukee even more shorthanded less than three minutes into the game. Embiid and guard Eric Bledsoe were jostling for position on a shot. After the shot went in, Bledsoe gave Embiid an extra shove. Embiid took exception to it and tossed the ball at Bledsoe who in turn threw his best fastball at Embiid. Mike Scott jumped and all hell broke loose.

When it was over, Embiid and Scott each got a technical while Bledsoe was tossed. You’ll recall Marcus Smart getting thrown out for shoving Embiid the last time the Sixers played the Celtics. It’s become a point of pride.

I was just thinking that I’m pretty good at what I do. This is the second time I get one of the key guys from the other team thrown out so I was pretty excited about it.

Embiid has played 63 games this season, matching last year’s total. The Sixers have just three games left. The team finds themselves in a tough spot, balancing Embiid’s health with securing the third seed and growing chemistry with the team’s new starting five.

With the Sixers twice playing a Bulls team that looks like a G-League team, they should be able to wrap up the third seed without Embiid. Developing that chemistry is probably unrealistic at this point, but Embiid isn’t concerned about that.

“I’m not worried,” Embiid said. “We’re going into the playoffs, we’ve only played really 10 games together and we’ve got so much talent that we’re just going to have to rely on our talent. I feel like we already understand each other really well. We all have a great relationship and that helps a lot on the court so I don’t really see any problems. 

“Everything changes in the playoffs. Players got to make plays. It’s based on talent and we are going to be fine.”

As long as Embiid is able to be the player he was Thursday, the Sixers should be just fine.

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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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Latest version of Sixers shows how dangerous it is in win vs. NBA-best Bucks

Latest version of Sixers shows how dangerous it is in win vs. NBA-best Bucks

The last time the Sixers played the Bucks, it wasn’t pretty.

Back on Oct. 24, Milwaukee took control early and the game was a blowout. The Sixers’ starters that night: Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz.

What a difference a few months and a couple blockbuster trades can make.

The Sixers’ new-look starting five, playing in just its seventh game together, turned in its finest performance with a 130-125 win in Milwaukee Sunday afternoon (see observations), clinching a playoff spot in the process.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was a monster with 52 points, but Joel Embiid was no slouch with 40 of his own along with 15 rebounds and six assists.

“I think when you ask about Joel, the thing that most stood out to me was there was a fierce level of competitiveness that he played with tonight,” Brown said to reporters postgame. “It was at an A-level. It was at a playoff level. And the physical side of things — throwing his body into things — just was extremely competitive.”

In a game against the NBA’s best and in a fight for the East’s third seed, there was a playoff feel to this one.

There’s been a lot made of the Sixers’ inability to beat the Eastern Conference’s elite. Going into Sunday, the Sixers were just 1-7 against the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics — that one win coming against a depleted Toronto team.

But that was then and this is now. This team looks nothing like the first iteration Milwaukee saw. In what could’ve been a possible playoff preview, “Sixers 3.0,” as JJ Redick called it, turned in its most impressive win of the season.

“We had only played six games. Think of that number. Truly, think about that number,” Brown said. “And to play against one of the more consistent teams in the league — as it sits, best team in the NBA [and] the best defensive team in the NBA — and try to learn and grow our team and move it forward. 

“There’s some talent in that room, no doubt about it, but there’s no right to have a fluid side and a chemistry and a symmetry. They have no right to have that — not to anybody’s fault except the calendar. So growing that and be excited about that and trying to polish it up before the playoffs begin is our goal.”

That calendar now reflects that there’s less than a month to go before the postseason. There are 12 games — including the rubber match against the Bucks — left in the regular season. That doesn’t leave much time for Brown to figure out his newest starting unit.

But luckily for Brown, the most promising thing this starting lineup has shown is the willingness to play a selfless brand of basketball. While Embiid may be the “crown jewel,” there are four other players that are supremely gifted offensively.

On Sunday, it was Redick who sparked them early by hitting 7 of 10 shots and going a spotless 4 of 4 from three for 19 points. It was Jimmy Butler who continued his aggressive ways and played closer yet again with 14 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. It was Embiid being Embiid.

Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris weren’t spectacular, but they were efficient. Simmons was 4 of 8 for eight points, but also added nine rebounds and nine assists. Harris shot just for 4 of 7 for 12, but added seven boards and four dimes.

The beauty of having five guys as immensely talented as what the Sixers have is that you don’t need everybody to go off. 

“I think we have so many guys that score the ball in so many different ways that any given night somebody’s going to get hot,” Butler said. “You’re not going to be able to guard everybody. We do a good job of finding guys in spots where they’re comfortable — I think that’s the best part about our offense. 

“When the ball is moving around and of course when we’re playing defense, [we’re at our best]. But I think everybody is having fun and when you’re having fun, the basketball game is easy.”

If “Sixers 3.0” keeps this up, the rest of the Eastern Conference won’t be having very much fun.

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