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Sixers-Bucks observations, analysis, and implications moving forward

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The Sixers visited the team with the NBA’s best record in Milwaukee and delivered their biggest win of the year. You know you can’t get enough of re-living this game so let’s jump into some of observations.

Joel Embiid Superstar

This first one was unmistakable. Joel Embiid was a revelation and it wouldn’t be nuts to devote the majority of this piece to simply describing his two-way superstar impact on display yesterday. If you wanted to use a “he refused to let them lose” narrative, go ahead that’s certainly how it felt. Brook Lopez had his hand full all afternoon.

That Joel had 6 dimes and just one turnover was huge.

Here was how this looked at times, as he patiently waits for T.J. McConnell to find the seam in the zone like a 7’2 quarterback, then gets back on d in time to stop Giannis:

And this beautiful screen assist, waiting patiently for Redick to find him:

Turnovers

Sixers fans have experienced melt downs in the past where the opponent hits a barrage of 3’s and forces Philadelphia into lots of mind-warping turnovers. Not yesterday. There were some, especially early on, but the total was limited and they made the proper adjustments at the half to keep them in check.

The team only had 13 turnovers, which is 2.5 less than their usual 15.5 per game, and just 5 in the second half, all against the league’s top rated defense in their own gym. Embiid is often their biggest culprit in this department and his growth in that area was critical to getting the win. It would have been an easy excuse had they lost to point to all of the new players struggling to get on the same page and that was not an problem, it was a strength.

Brett Brown deserves his share of the credit for that since he shoulders so much of the blame when they lose games in this fashion.

Mano a Mano

It’s not often we get to see both team’s superstars guarding each other. Often a team will want to keep its star out of foul trouble, and avoid fatigue. The Sixers opened the game by stonewalling Giannis Antetokounmpo with Embiid. Giannis finished with 52 points, a career high, so if you did not watch the game it might feel weird to hear us praise the way the Sixers defended him but that would be a mistake.

Embiid used his almost impossible combination of strength and agility to not only stay in front of him but to hold his ground when Giannis would slash and attack. After a few plays like this one below, you could almost see Giannis say to himself “ok, let me trust my teammates a bit:”

Trusting others didn’t really work as they were ice cold, so Giannis started shooting 3’s himself (3-8 on the game).

Scary sequence for NBA team’s without Embiid or Giannis below:

Above, first Embiid displays some good passing skills, spotting the open man after the trap, a weakness of his to date. Then after he gets it back he confidently drills a contested step-back triple. Impressive stuff.

On the following position, you see what happens when a defender feels he has to honor Giannis’ ability to hit a 3. Embiid had had so much success defending Giannis that the Greek Freak began settling for and actually hitting 3’s, (3 of his first 5) here is a look at how an elite defender begins to react when Giannis is hitting 3’s. The league can only pray Giannis doesn’t typically hit 3 three’s in a short amount of time.

We got to see a tremendous duel yesterday. Two young superstars battling it out and each being forced to rely on weapons he isn’t normally comfortable using because the skill of his opponent forces adaptation. Cool stuff.

3 point defense

But for sizable stretches of the first half, largely because of Embiid’s defense, Giannis appeared content to defer to teammates. It didn’t work in their favor.

There is plenty of randomness to this and the Sixers benefited from some of it, although there is a good argument to be made that getting the ball out of Giannis’ hands is a wise strategy. The Bucks countered Embiid’s presence in the paint by hunting tons of triples.

Milwaukee finished 32% from downtown, connecting on just 16 of their 50 attempts from beyond the arc. Plenty of them were wide open but plenty of them were well contested. They tied their record for missed 3’s at the half and the second half was largely the same story, although they got hot after it was a bit too late.

On their end, the Sixers didn’t force 3’s, although Embiid did wind up taking 13 of them. It’s a number that’s well above his average, but a counter to the way the Bucks pack the paint and dare bigs to take shots they don’t love taking.

Philly was 15-32 overall and 7-17 in the second half from deep. Redick picked a good day to get back on track, he hit all four of his triples.

Ben Simmons a mixed bag

Ben Simmons had some nice plays. He did a solid job defending Giannis himself in spurts. He nearly finished with a triple double (8, 9 and 9) and made a huge tip jam over Giannis as he crashed the glass in crunch time. But there was also plenty of room for improvement.

For example, his first few minutes of the second quarter were bad. He came out without much energy, he was upright defensively, getting blown by or gambling for low-probability steals, and unforced turnovers, and a brick on a pull up that crashed off the glass.

Ben’s lazy gambles both on a corner 3 pass he didn’t quite have the angle on, and then on a low-probability steal led to a big swing:

Ben in a phone booth (upright) on Bledsoe gets burned and it leads to an open corner 3:

Ben sat down for rest and the bench picked it up, with Mike Scott, Tobias Harris and James Ennis making shots, and then Ben snapped out of it later.

But the Bucks defend him very well, and similarly to the way the Celtics do. This will be a big factor if these teams meet in the post-season. We saw lots of possessions like these below where Ben would be the initiator, and take a harmless dribble or two before picking up his handle and passing:

And another:

Part of Ben’s growth will be continuing to find ways to be useful when he’s defended in this fashion and avoid the lapses.

Bench experiments

Coach Brown also found creative ways to keep a couple of his stars (Embiid, Simmons, Butler or Harris) in the game at all times, as his starting unit only played 19 total minutes. Philadelphia’s starting unit was a -2 in the box score, but for comparison’s sake, the Bucks starters, newly without key contributor Malcolm Brogdon, were a -8. We’ll take that as a win.

Coach Brown got some big minutes out of his bench units. The lineup of Harris, T.J. McConnell, Mike Scott, Boban Marjanovic, and Jimmy Butler was a +12 in 11 minutes.

A group of Redick, Embiid, Simmons, James Ennis, and Scott was +5 in ten minutes. There was probably some luck involved here. As Boban was targeted on switches and Khris Middleton had almost no success against him in a good four or 5 tries. Ennis hit a couple triples. That helps. The Sixers survived a flurry of McConnell turnovers early in the game trying to do too much, and his bizarre foul on Giannis at the end of the first as well.

T.J. made up for it with some good defense on opposing guards and found his spots in the Bucks’ (tantamount to a) “zone” defense.

That things didn’t totally collapse may have felt like a win, however, so there’s room for optimism with the playoffs ahead as teams shorten their rotations. If the Sixers can stagger their lineups the way they have, they may be able to patch some holes. Harris’ best stretch in a conspicuously quiet game came in one of these bench lineups where he was able to attack out off flare screens.

It’s the type of play Derek Bodner of the Athletic recently pointed out the team likes to use for him:

He found a little success in similar spots vs. Milwaukee but not much.

There is one problem, however, that keeps happening to some of these bench lineups: falling asleep after makes:

Same thing again, see if you can spot the culprit in either instance:

I’m not sure whose fault these are but I know they’re more likely to happen in these second-units. Something to keep an eye on moving forward as Embiid will not be in next game vs. Charlotte and we’ll get more looks.

“Jimmy Crunch Time”

By my count, Butler led around 11 pick-n-rolls yesterday. A couple of them might be better classified as a dribble hand off, but what’s similar is that they did it to force a switch and let Butler initiate and attack. The majority of all of the ones he had happened when he checked back into the game late in the 4th. The one above illustrates how Harris’ threat from deep opens things up for Butler.

There was an abrupt switch where something the team would do once or twice a quarter, was suddenly the focal point of the offense, aside from posting up Embiid.

And man, did Jimmy deliver. He had 14 4th quarter points. Forcing switches, he hit contested mid range shots, floaters, and pull-up 3’s. He slashed into the paint and finished with contact. He set up cutters. He hit the shots they needed him to hit when they traded for him. Brett Brown has spoken about wanting this to be a bigger element of the game plan moving forward and yesterday it happened and it worked.

It was so effective it begs the question of why we haven’t seen more of it.

There was less of a reliance on the JJ Redick dribble hand off in crunch time, as well as Tobias Harris miss-match hunting or creating. Harris and Redick were largely relegated to floor spacers and it became the Butler and Embiid show when it mattered the most, the duo combining for a staggering 30 points in the final period.

It’s something to keep an eye on moving forward as there may still be room to more fluidly incorporate others while continuing to ramp up Butler’s responsibilities as initiator. Simmons is the better point guard in transition. Hitting him for outlets is a lethal way to attack after misses. His grab-and-gos put relentless pressure on the D. But in the half-court, against a locked in elite team, it seems Butler is the better half-court initiator. It’s a trend they may want to learn more about with the playoffs weeks away.

Bledsoe in check

The sixers did a great job on Eric Bledsoe who never appeared comfortable. He was a game low +- of negative 17, connecting on just 5 out-of-14 shots from the field with two turnovers. His looked out of sorts.

JJ Redick (who we only usually discuss as making or missing shots and getting torched on defense) played him well in spurts. He chased him around screens and contested his shots, he stripped him, and forced a couple of bad passes, here a block:

Of course it was a team effort on Bledsoe, and McConnell and Ennis did well too, but the Sixers’ achilles heel all year has been defending players like him. They answered the bell yesterday.

The Bucks missed Brogdon, as Mirotic couldn’t find his shot. They’ll probably have a chance to gel and get used to the switch from a guard to a stretch 4 in their lineup, but it certainly played into the Sixers’ hands yesterday. There were times when Bledsoe looked small out there.

The late rush of points by the Bucks

The late rush by the Bucks came in part because Embiid abandoned his drop coverage on screens and would switch out onto shooters like Middleton, Brook Lopez or Bledsoe to take away deep balls. This led to easy post-buckets and free-throws for Giannis or Lopez and dribble penetration by Bledsoe. Lopez and Middleton finally nailed tough contested triples too. Suddenly the game was close.

When the Sixers refused to give up open 3’s, everything opened up for Milwaukee. This may be something the Sixers will live with in future situations in order to protect a lead but it was scary.

It’s even more impressive that Joel in this more frenzied defensive mindset was still able to draw key fouls on Lopez (almost from 3 but with a foot on the line) and deliver the dagger triple while clearly covering so much ground.

All in all Embiid was just amazing. He’s earned a game off for his load-management and seems OK with it. That’s a bit of growth as well. Hopefully they can see much more point-Butler against Charlotte tomorrow and get Harris involved again.