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Bucks 91, Sixers 87: The T.J. McConnell Show

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Okafor stretches time, Noel stretches space, and the Sixers lose anyway.

Jerami Grant: +22
Jerami Grant: +22
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

A couple botched possessions late doomed the Sixers to a 91-87 loss to Milwaukee. The pursuit of victory continues.

Still, Okafor dropping 21 on 9-of-13 shooting and playing 35 minutes--including competent crunch-time defense--is great news. As is Noel going into full-on elastic mode at times and ending up with 17 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. This is the shape of things to come, friends.

I recapped all three Sixers-Bucks games last year, and believe you me, all three were unwatchable detritus. The layers of mental gymnastics I had to go through to convince myself I was having fun watching them would confound modern psychiatry. This game, which included several strong performances on the road against a team the mainstream basketball intelligentsia loves, and would have won comfortably if not for several injuries and some deplorable outside shooting.

Most of all, this game was fun to watch and devastating to lose, and you could tell this was the case by the players' faces as they walked off the floor. That's no small statement about a team that's still missing Robert Covington, Tony Wroten and Kendall Marshall. The latter's absence was particularly hard-hitting as Isaiah Canaan trundled along aimlessly, crushing whatever goodwill remains between him and Sixers fans underfoot the way an advancing armored column chews up a muddy backwoods path. The Sixers' wing play likewise left something to be desired, but there are positives, including one that's particularly painful to for me to acknowledge.

T.J. McConnell had five points, six assists and five rebounds in the first half, and finished with seven, 12 and nine. I'm never going to come off my opinion that McConnell, who gets praised with the kind of coach-on-the-floor playmaker bullshit that usually gets reserved for floorbound Caucasian tryhards. He's the kind of player sportswriters like to praise because he makes them think that they could've played in the NBA if they'd gotten all the breaks, and allows them to indulge in the fantasy that it's possible to play pro basketball on grit and hustle and work ethic alone, or that more talented players don't also work like coal miners. I hate this kind of player, and it's why I get a fizzing sensation in my groin whenever I think about how Aaron Craft is all the way down in the Hungarian league.

But McConnell was really good. Jerryd Bayless was able to slip him pretty routinely on defense, but McConnell was the lynchpin of a Sixers offense that exhibited some pretty impressive ball movement, which Okafor tended to finish on (more on this in a minute) and the wing players tended not to. Nothing McConnell does--short of delivering a hot buffalo chicken cheesesteak to my door--will stop him from being my least favorite Sixer since Kevin Ollie, but he played a hell of a game.

Okafor, by the way, was magnificent. He not only drew a consistent double team but passed out of it well, and not only passed out of double teams but sometimes dribbled out of them, which is when I realized something strange about Okafor. Which is that he's at least as slow as everyone says, but when he's dribbling the ball, somehow he makes everyone else slow too? Because he got away with some moves--including a coast-to-coast solo fast break--that are best performed at a brisk allegro, but Okafor, bless his heart, doesn't really get up much faster than andante. And it all worked anyway.

The Bucks led 47-45 at the half despite an extremely promising first half from Philadelphia: Noel covered the court defensively pretty much on his own, from sideline to sideline. Okafor showed flashes of competence defensively, with a block and a very nice one-on-one defensive possession with Parker. Nik Stauskas had a team-high 11 points in the first half, but his 4-of-13 shooting mark (5-of-19 for the whole game) was kind of a good news/bad news proposition--he got the ball in wide-open spots or on a line to basket, but his shooting, from a results standpoint, would best be described as "profligate." Nevertheless, it's great that he's getting those looks and taking them without hesitating. If there's one thing I've learned from Nick Young, it's that there's not much difference between "unconscious" and "unconscionable."

It is in such fine distinctions, however, that Sixers games are being decided. It's one thing to take solace in knowing that the Sixers lost because of fixable flaws, and that the foundations of a competitive team are already in place. It's another to fix them, and that's the next step.