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The Milwaukee Bucks should be Sixers fans’ biggest fear

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Brooklyn is good ... but I don’t want to see the Bucks ...

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers are headed towards an epic clash between one of two Eastern Conference teams just to get to the NBA Finals.

It’s either going to be the Milwaukee Bucks or the Brooklyn Nets (or possibly both in the increasingly unlikely event the Sixers slip to the 2-seed).

The Nets already had Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the roster, but they added James Harden in December.

The Bucks have always been the Bucks, but they added Jrue Holiday.

I’ve said this on many podcasts since both transactions happened, and after Milwaukee beat the Sixers twice AND Brooklyn twice, it’s time we all had a “come to Jesus” moment when we talk about who scares us the most.

It’s the Milwaukee Bucks.

It always was the Milwaukee Bucks.

It should continue to be the Milwaukee Bucks.

Start with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Let’s just rip this Band-Aid off.

The “Greek Freak” is still just as good as he was last year. His scoring per game is down (by one), but there are other reasons that contribute to that which I’ll discuss later in this piece.

When it’s time for Antetokounmpo to take over a game, he’s virtually unstoppable. The top two teams in the East (our Sixers and the Brooklyn Nets, respectively) know this all too well.

Antetokounmpo’s numbers against Brooklyn:

  • January 18, 2021 – 34/11/7, 50% FG in a loss
  • May 2, 2021 – 49/8/4 58% FG in a win
  • May 4, 2021 – 36/12/4 37% FG in a win

Antetokounmpo’s numbers against the Sixers:

  • March 17, 2021 – 32/15/5 59% FG in a win
  • April 22, 2021 – 27/16/6 53% FG in a win
  • April 24, 2021 – 24/17/7 75% FG in a win

(Yes. When playing against Philly, the Sixers did not have Joel Embiid for two of the three games against Milwaukee. I recognize that fact.)

Antetokounmpo has a 5-1 record against the top two teams in the East with averages of 33.6 points, 13.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field. Those are godly numbers. Not UN-godly. GOD-LIKE. He’s still not comfortable shooting from outside of 10 feet. This season, Antetokounmpo takes about 65 percent of his shots from 0-to-10 feet, but he shoots 61 percent from the field. That’s a lot of points in the paint and in transition (a stat Antetokounmpo leads the league in).

That said, the Sixers do match up very well against him. They have three different bigs they can throw at Antetokounmpo and guard him in different ways. Embiid has the size to match up against him in the post. Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons have the lateral quickness to match up against him on the perimeter.

Embiid versus Giannis will be billed as the biggest battle of 2021 – even more so than “Godzilla vs. Kong” (which was surprisingly good if you haven’t seen it). Seven games of those two going at it will shake the earth, and I’m here for that.

The supporting cast around Antetokounmpo looks to be the best he’s had in his career, and that leads me to the next stick on this trident.

Milwaukee sent the 24th overall pick, Eric Bledsoe, two future first-round picks, and two additional pick swaps in a four-team deal to bring former Sixers guard Jrue Holiday to play at the Fiserv Forum. In doing so, they gave Antetokounmpo the best lead guard he’s ever had.

Bledsoe faded away after a disastrous 2019 playoff run, and if there was one problem with the Bucks’ roster, it was their disappointing lack of an elite-level point guard. Holiday has changed that situation.

Holiday is the perfect all-around point guard to pair with Antetokounmpo. He’s third on the team in scoring (17.4) and is tied with the reigning MVP in assists with 5.9. Holiday isn’t asked to “bomb away” from deep (more on that, too, in a second), but he is shooting 39 percent from 3 on close to five attempts per game.

Holiday is in the 83rd percentile in spot-ups according to Synergy Sports (1.173 points per possession), 81st percentile in catch and shoots (1.256 PPP), and he’s been very good as a pick-and-roll ball handler (74th percentile, 0.960 PPP). He’s a different kind of perimeter threat than Khris Middleton because Holiday can drive and shoot well versus Middleton who is only just okay in an isolation situation.

Defensively, Holiday hasn’t put up elite numbers or anything. He has been good enough I suppose (2.2 defensive win shares, 0.9 defensive box plus/minus). For comparison’s sake, Danny Green isn’t elite, but he’s good enough (2.8 DWS/1.4 DBPM).

I understand what you’re going to say next: “Can he do it in the playoffs?”

My answer would be: “Okay. I understand that point, but what exactly does Holiday need to do in order to make the Bucks successful?”

He didn’t have to be THE GUY for the Pelicans when they were in the playoffs because New Orleans had Anthony Davis AND Demarcus Cousins. How much does he REALLY have to do when he’s playing with Antetokounmpo and Middleton? I would argue he simply needs to be steadier than Eric Bledsoe. That bar to clear is pretty low.

Just don’t suck, Jrue. That’s pretty much what Milwaukee fans ask.

In a potential seven-game series against the Sixers, Holiday will have to be neutralized to an extent. He won’t be the guy that goes off for 40-plus points in a game. Holiday has only scored 25 or more seven times this season.

Would the Sixers go length and cut off his driving using Ben Simmons as the primary defender?

Would they go with the more defensively savvy Danny Green and just get in his head?

The Sixers have options both in the starting lineup or on the bench with Hill (underrated defender) or Matisse Thybulle (at the very LEAST an All-NBA second team defender).

The next part of the trident probably scares me the most about going up against the Bucks in a potential playoff series. The Sixers are a top-ten team in defending the 3-pointer. The Bucks are eighth in 3-point attempts and second in 3-point percentage.

  • Khris Middleton: 43 percent on 5.3 attempts, 1.233 CnS
  • Donte DiVincenzo: 37 percent on 5.0 attempts, 1.207 PPP CnS
  • Bryn Forbes: 45 percent on 4.9 attempts, 1.399 PPP CnS
  • Jrue Holiday: 39 percent on 4.7 attempts, 1.256 PPP CnS
  • Brook Lopez: 34 percent on 4.2 attempts, 1.053 PPP CnS

As a team, the Bucks are third in the league in points per possession on catch-and-shoot jump shots (1.204 PPP) per Synergy and second in the league in PPP from “long” – which is basically code for 3-pointers – with a 1.189 PPP number.

Aside from Lopez – who still needs to be respected because he’s willing to shoot – the Bucks shoot A LOT of 3s. Since Mike Budenholzer took over for Jason Kidd in the 2018-19 season, the Bucks have not been outside the top five in the league in 3-point attempts.

With Middleton, Holiday, DiVincenzo, and Lopez on the floor with Antetokounmpo, there is A LOT of space for him to operate, and the Sixers would have to stay home on those shooters. In the three games the Bucks played the Sixers, they hoisted 40, 39, and 40 attempts. In one of those games, they shot 50 percent from 3. In the other two, they were sub-25 percent (and still won).

Simmons, Green, Thybulle, and Hill are more than capable of running the wings off of their lines, but holy crap, will the Sixers be able to keep ALL of the Bucks’ wings from going off from deep? They’re certainly more equipped than Brooklyn, but I still wouldn’t feel too good if they’re up by 7-9 points and have already hit 8-12 3-pointers.

The last bit of this trident … (I guess it’s more of a shuriken than a trident at this point) … is something that doesn’t show up in any stat sheet.

**CAUTION. CLICHÉ ALERT!**

Personally, I am a huge believer in chemistry on the floor.

When the Miami Heat’s big three was first assembled, they didn’t win their first title that same year. They were 12-8 in their first 20 games. Sure, they went on to get to the NBA Finals anyway, but they lost to a Dallas Mavericks team that was simply used to playing with each other.

The Heat came back and won the title the next year.

Similarly, the Brooklyn Nets already had Kyrie Irving. Kevin Durant wasn’t healthy to start the year, and head coach Steve Nash has had to work him into the system. Now, James Harden is out, so Nash has to figure out how JUST KD and Kyrie works. KD, Kyrie, and Harden have played virtually zero minutes together.

Are we really expecting everything to click come playoff time – especially when all three of those guys are iso-heavy? Durant needs the ball. Irving needs the ball. Harden needs the ball.

Milwaukee has simply had more time to figure out what they are with their “big three” of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday. I definitely think they’re more balanced, offensively, than the Nets. They certainly play more/better defense than the Nets.

This is something that needs to be brought up when talking about who is a “worse” matchup for the Sixers in a potential playoff series. Milwaukee can bully them down low with Antetokounmpo AND shoot the lights out of the gym with their wings. The Sixers, I believe, have at least one guy that can be effective against Durant, Irving, and Harden. (The only caveat there being who guards Irving. I’m not asking Danny Green to guard him one-on-one for 30-to-35 minutes a game.)

The Sixers match up decently enough against the Bucks. They have the size to counteract Antetokounmpo when he’s doing his “bully ball” thing. They have the wings to defend the perimeter if Bucks shooters decide that they want to have their NBA Jam “He’s on fire!” moments …

… but as a Sixers fan/writer about the Sixers … this team still scares the bejesus out of me.