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Sixers head to Milwaukee for final game before All-Star break

The Sixers have a challenge in store for what could be their last game before James Harden’s debut.

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Sixers’ last game was brutal. With the defense struggling, no one on the team turning in a strong performance, and the Celtics shooting absolutely lights out to hit 25 three-pointers at a 55.6 percent rate, the Sixers were crushed in a 135-87 loss. On a day where James Harden had officially been introduced as a Sixer at his first press conference before ringing the bell, it was a deflating game for Philly, to say the least.

I won’t dwell on it anymore, though, seeing as you’ve probably tried to remove all memory of it from your mind. Instead, let’s look ahead to the Sixers’ final game before the All-Star break.

On Thursday night, the Sixers will be finishing the first half of the season with another test. This time, they’re up against the 36-23, third-place Milwaukee Bucks.

The Sixers are at full health for this matchup, apart from the expected absence of James Harden who will be out until after the All-Star break as he finishes rehab for his left hamstring. For the Bucks, their starting center and reliable rim protector Brook Lopez has been sidelined since the first game of the season and remains out indefinitely after having back surgery. Pat Connaughton (right hand surgery) and George Hill (neck soreness) are both out as well. Wesley Matthews (right toe soreness) is probable, while Grayson Allen (left hip soreness) is doubtful.

The Bucks shook things up somewhat at last week’s trade deadline. In a four-team deal with the Kings, Clippers and Pistons, they sent Donte DiVincenzo to Sacramento in return for Serge Ibaka, two second-round picks and cash. With DiVincenzo’s injury history and upcoming free agency, plus the solid play of Allen who was acquired last summer, the Bucks moving on from DiVincenzo made sense.

Ibaka’s role had slipped with the Clippers this season and his play has been up and down, but he gives Milwaukee some useful depth at center and a skillset they need. He still offers some help as a rim protector and extra three-point shooting — he’s making 39.1 percent of his threes this season and has shot 36 percent from beyond the arc for his career.

This is where Bobby Portis deserves credit, too. He’s been playing well all season and hitting more threes than ever (41 percent from deep on a career-high 4.7 attempts per game) in Lopez’s absence.

To follow up from the Ibaka trade, the Bucks have also signed DeAndre’ Bembry (who was waived in the Harden trade as the Nets needed an extra roster spot), giving them more defense on the wing.

For the most part, Milwaukee has been playing decent basketball lately. They’re 9-4 over their last 13 games with the sixth-ranked offense in this stretch, although their defense has slipped to just 22nd in this span — getting beaten 136-100 by a red-hot Nuggets team on Jan. 30 really burned them here. And in general this season, the Bucks’ reduced size and rim protection without Lopez has hurt. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton are both available and playing well after missing some time earlier in the season, though, and Giannis Antetokounmpo has been playing out of his mind.

The two-time MVP has been having a phenomenal year at both ends of the floor, but has been particularly dominant recently. Over his last eight games, he’s averaged 33.6 points, 11.4 rebounds and 6.1 assists with 63.1/40.6/72.2 shooting splits. He’s even scored at least 44 points twice in his last three games alone — his 50-point outing on 17-of-21 shooting against Indiana on Tuesday was just unfair.

However, the Bucks have had a couple of bad defeats over the last week. They were comfortably beaten 131-107 by the Suns on Feb. 10, and lost 122-107 to the depleted Blazers on Monday (Giannis was out).

The Sixers lost to the Bucks 118-109 in their last matchup back on Nov. 9 but Joel Embiid was out at the time, so him being available today makes things far more interesting. With the Sixers’ missing some offensive firepower and shooting after trading Seth Curry and still waiting for Harden, there’ll be even more pressure on Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris to pick up the slack. Maxey’s shiftiness getting downhill and finishing at the rim has been even better this season, but how he drives to the basket against an elite defender in Holiday (who also has some extra size at a strong 6-foot-3) and holds up defensively will be a key matchup to focus on.

Even with the acquisition of Ibaka, the current Bucks still don’t have a center who can do much to contain Embiid inside. With the Sixers being shorthanded until Harden’s debut and no Bucks centers being great one-on-one matchups against Embiid, it will be interesting to see how aggressively Milwaukee doubles the big fella and whether or not the Sixers’ perimeter players can heat up enough to keep things competitive. After the Sixers shot 8-of-32 (25 percent) from three against the Celtics on Tuesday, it’s not like they can get much colder.

Defensively, Embiid has handled Giannis well in the past. Embiid has a combination of size, strength and agility that allows him to compete with Giannis’s drives and contest shots at the rim better than most other defenders. He should play a key role in covering Giannis on Thursday while Harris could spend more time on Portis, but Embiid can’t take this assignment all the time.

Before even focusing on how difficult guarding Giannis will be, monitoring the Sixers’ backup bigs will be important moving forward in general. The 37-year-old Paul Millsap made his debut against the Celtics and did a fine job with nine points, three offensive rebounds and a pair of triples in nine minutes, albeit when the game was already well out of hand. After a down season in Brooklyn where he fell out of the rotation, can Millsap start showing the Sixers more of the passing, shooting, and smart (albeit limited) defense he gave the Nuggets as a smaller big man option in 2020-21?

Paul Reed is still going to make his mistakes, but has been playing his best basketball yet for the Sixers lately, especially with his athleticism and high activity on defense. He even had some impressive possessions guarding Giannis earlier this season. Obviously it’s hard for anyone to slow down Antetokounmpo right now, but if Reed can do anything to bother him with his length and mobility again, it would help the Sixers’ chances on and boost Reed’s case for more minutes moving forward.

If there’s a game for young bigs like Reed or Charles Bassey to step up with a claim for more playing time, this is it.

Even if it’s hard for the Sixers to find a win with Harden on the sidelines, this game could still be a fun one as Giannis and Embiid go head to head. The Bucks missing some perimeter depth helps the Sixers a little, too, and could keep this contest a bit closer.

At the very least, it can’t be any worse than that Celtics game, right?

Game Info

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks

When: 8:30 pm ET, Feb. 17, 2022

Where: Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee, WI

Watch: TNT

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @Liberty_Ballers