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Observations from a heartbreaker: the Millsap minutes, James Harden looked healthy, Danny Green’s role

Seeking silver linings and solutions after Joel Embiid and James Harden fell to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Sixers lost a heartbreaker at home to the Milwaukee Bucks. These two teams have yet to meet in a playoff series, at least not in the respective Giannis-Embiid eras. But it does sort of feel like a rivalry sometimes.

Philadelphia loses just a bit of ground in the race for the one seed in the East. They’re now in fourth place at 46-29 with a bit of work to do still if they want to catch the Bucks, Miami Heat or Boston Celtics.

Oddly, one of the best home teams in the NBA over the last few years. the Sixers are just 21-17 at Wells Fargo Center this campaign. Maybe those frosty temperatures required to keep the ice cold are catching up with them?

The East in a snapshot from ESPN.com:

With the big picture in mind, let’s get to a couple takeaways from the big game.

Did you know the minutes Joel Embiid sat presented a challenge?

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

An age old theme is still very much a current one. Death, taxes, and Philly getting absolutely murdered when their MVP takes a four minute rest.

With all of the playoff implications and national MVP buzz around this game it must have really frustrated Embiid to have to sit and watch Giannis throttle a reserve unit during a pivotal stretch of the ball game.

To have done as good of a job as can be expected on a superstar defensively, and then be forced to watch said star run up their own boxscore and vamoose your hard-earned double-digit lead...sigh.

Last night it felt like the Sixers had the league’s very best option to guard Giannis in Embiid, and also the NBA’s very worst option in whatever happened defensively when Embiid sat. (I said felt like Paul Millsap stans, relax!)

“I was on the bench the whole time ,” Embiid said after the 118-116 loss. “When I was on the floor, you know, really made sure that I was always there to help. I thought we didn’t follow up that strategy, we didn’t build a wall, and you had a lot of free lane to just attack and get whatever [Giannis] wanted. And that changed the game. Maybe next time just match up the minutes,” Embiid suggested.

Joel sat down with 2:22 left in the third, the Sixers up 10 and reentered with 9:22 to go in the third. By then the Sixers lead was down to two. And a bevy of lead changes commenced from there.

We can question the personnel the Sixers had on the floor, but as Embiid notes they didn’t build a wall either. They had some of their usual transition flubs. They’ll live with this three, but not the layups:

It’s one thing to not have Embiid OR James Harden on the court at the same time, but then to also deploy Paul Millsap is extra tough. Coach Rivers’ experiment here didn’t work out. But I’m thinking I prefer Millsap to DeAndre Jordan when facing an elite squad.

Still, if that had been a game seven, we’d talk about the second-half Millsap minutes and how Daryl Morey might have been able to prevent this somehow for years to come.

Before the Clippers game, coach Tyronn Lue talked about how Rivers has the luxury of playing a full game with one of his two superstars on the floor at all times and how difficult that makes life for an opposing coach. The Sixers had reason enough to at least toy with some Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris led bench units which they have lately. But that’s probably not going to be the formula for winning a massive road playoff game, unless Tobias gets hot like he did in the first half vs. Phoenix.

Maxey has basically been a liability on the floor shooting as poorly as he has the last two “big test” battles. To be fair, if ‘Rese was a little better they might be in first place and all of these issues would feel a lot less serious. There’s always some randomness to it all.

Coach Rivers actually trolled Sixer fans after the game by saying he considered playing Paul Reed vs. Milwaukee.

“You know, I thought Millsap in the first half was good,” Rivers shared. “In the second half he struggled, didn’t like [DeAndre Jordan for this matchup] we almost went with Paul Reed... but in Milwaukee that was a tough matchup for [Reed] was Giannis.”

But some Sixer fans don’t grade Reed on the same curve Doc uses apparently:

So what is the answer? Is Embiid right that they should just match his minutes with Giannis’ next time? Maybe.

Although it is a big commitment that would force Doc to compromise his own rotation. It puts a team in a reactive place, relinquishing a lot of control. Maybe that’s worth trying in a playoff series. But the experiment where one of Jordan or Millsap is on the floor with neither Harden nor Embiid can probably be crossed off the list. That seems needlessly challenging.

I can already see the memes if the Sixers lose in the first or second round largely because a very-old backup five was a minus 8 in 4 minutes. But instead of naming the worst player that could put them over the hump, we’d just name a player they already have. “Sixers win that 2022 Boston series if they only had Charles Bassey!”

Is Paul Reed or Charles Bassey some magic skeleton key? Maybe, but probably not. But they should definitely get a chance here to rule themselves out since the alternative path may take us to that whole definition of insanity thing.

James Harden looked healthy and was cooking, whew

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

You may never have worried as much as me, but once I saw Harden pawing at his hamstrings in Phoenix, I half braced myself to hear he’d had a setback and would need some time off. Several friends wanted to text me about rotations and I said let’s see where Harden is at first, otherwise this stuff won’t matter. Bullet dodged.

Instead, that report never came, Harden suited up and played perhaps his best game as a Sixer. Seen through that lens, that’s as much of a silver lining as anything else to me from that contest. The Sixers are still very much alive.

Harden showed some pop and attacked every defender the Bucks threw at him with some success. Not even Freak could get a piece of this one:

Speaking of Harden, one of the reasons cited by Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer for why The Beard got a wandering eye in Brooklyn was because Steve Nash routinely varied his closing lineups.

The Sixers are now doing the same thing, toggling between Georges Niang, Matisse Thybulle, and Danny Green at the end of ball games.

It’s certainly worth tinkering with. But you wonder if Harden would prefer they figure that out sooner than later if it was something that bugged him on another team earlier this season.

If Danny Green has been saving himself for the stretch run, perhaps his knocking down 8 of his last 17 triples is the first signs of life. His edge over Niang defensively, combined with his edge over Thybulle offensively, in theory, makes him a strong candidate to eventually take over this closer role. If he could turn back the clock even a little it would be monumental for this team.

On the other hand, in a huge game he only played 23 minutes, so maybe Doc thinks Green is nearing the grand laundromat. I think I’d give Green more of a chance here since he’s the type of guy that complements James Harden quite well. Just a few games to go but still a fair amount to figure out.