Leg three of the Philadelphia 76ers’ five-game road trip continues against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night in another nationally televised matchup. The Bucks enter this contest having won 16 consecutive games and are sitting atop the East at 45-17. The Sixers have lost three of their past four and are 40-22, good for third in the East.
On the injury side of things, Wesley Matthews is out for Milwaukee due to a right calf strain. Dewayne Dedmon is questionable with left hip soreness for the Sixers.
Milwaukee leads the NBA in defensive rating (109.5), is 17th in offensive rating (114.4) and fifth in net rating (plus-5.0). During its 16-game winning streak, Milwaukee is first (105.6), fifth (120.2) and first (plus-14.5) in those respective categories. It also boasts the league’s second-best home record on the season at 27-5. Only the Denver Nuggets’ 28-4 mark is better.
These two teams squared off twice in the opening month of the season, when they split wins. Milwaukee began its 2022-23 campaign with a two-point victory inside Wells Fargo Center and Philadelphia snagged revenge with an eight-point victory four weeks later.
Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 23 points, 13.5 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and one steal on 49.1 percent true shooting in two games against Philadelphia. Joel Embiid averaged 23.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and two blocks on 45.3 percent true shooting. Fellow 2023 All-Star Jrue Holiday played a reserve role in one of those games and averaged eight points, six assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals across two appearances.
James Harden did not play in the second game, but dropped 31 points, nine assists, eight rebounds, two steals and one block on 60.2 percent true shooting in his lone outing. Khris Middleton has yet to play against the Sixers this season. Since returning on Jan. 23 — the same day the Bucks’ winning streak started — he’s come off the bench and averaged 14.9 points, five rebounds and 4.1 assists on 57.6 percent true shooting in 13 games.
After the Celtics rained in a barrage of threes in last spring’s second-round series, particularly in their blowout Game 7 triumph, the Bucks amended their defensive scheme to stay at home more often against shooters. This year, they rank top five in lowest opponent rim frequency and three-point frequency. The prior five years, they finished top five in opponent rim frequency, but bottom five in opponent three-point rate. They’ve elected to trust Holiday and Jevon Carter at the point-of-attack, along with Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez around the rim. It’s worked quite well, given their No. 1 defense.
However, there have been instances that all the space they grant teams inside the arc works against them. While Lopez defended Embiid superbly for much of Philadelphia’s November win over the Bucks, Embiid found a rhythm late against that single coverage and helped deliver a victory. I wonder how Milwaukee approaches that coverage, now that Harden is in the fold again and Tyrese Maxey is available to play more than one half. I expect Lopez to be entrusted with single coverage again because of how capably he looked most of the game, even despite how it ended. The Bucks have also proven adaptable in that philosophy and deviated away when they deem it necessary.
I expect P.J. Tucker to receive the Antetokounmpo assignment as Embiid plays the roamer role. Typically, that roamer role suits Embiid and the Sixers’ defense because Embiid isn’t guarding an effective floor-spacer. Lopez and his 37.7 percent clip beyond the arc this season, though, provide effective floor-spacing. How Embiid and the Sixers balance providing help for Tucker with staying home against Lopez and the subsequent rotations when Embiid does commit to help will be crucial.
If Maxey remains in the starting five, who does he guard? Kyrie Irving was an ill-fitting responsibility on Thursday that proved costly. Tobias Harris should probably defend Jrue Holiday, while Harden and Maxey take the off-ball shooters in Grayson Allen and Pat Connaughton. That doesn’t remedy every potential issue, but it’s assuredly a better plan than Maxey on Holiday, who will maximize his strength and size advantages against his youthful counterpart.
The Bucks are the hottest and arguably the best team in the NBA. They’re cruising. They’re at home. They’re playing precisely like championship contenders. Saturday is a massive opportunity for Philadelphia to build some positive momentum following a tough stretch of games and right the ship.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks
When: 8:30 pm EST, Thursday, Mar. 2
Where: Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee, WI
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic