3 Observations as Sixers Fall to Giannis, Bucks in Potential Playoff Series Preview

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Staff Writer

The Philadelphia 76ers fell to the Milwaukee Bucks, 118-116, in front of a packed crowd at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday night.

Giannis Antetokounmpo battled with Joel Embiid in a game that lived up to the hype coming in. Antetokounmpo finished the game with 40 points on 16-of-24 shooting to go with 14 rebounds, six assists, one steal and three blocks.

Embiid finished with 29 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. James Harden added in 32 points, his most in a Sixers uniform, along with five boards and nine assists.

The loss moved the Sixers to 46-29 and fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks, who now won the season series 2-1, will have the advantage in any seeding tiebreaker. The Sixers are 1.5 games out of the first seed with seven games to play. They next take on the Detroit Pistons on Thursday night. Here are three observations from the loss to the Bucks:

Harden playing with explosiveness, playoff intensity

Coming off scoring just 14 points on 2-of-11 shooting in the loss to the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, Harden recovered nicely against the Bucks. He played with an explosiveness that he has lacked at times since the debuting with the Sixers. His first three buckets all came on drives to the basket, and he would go on to finish the first quarter with 12 points and two assists.

The Sixers' offense looked out of sync at times in the first quarter, but the team made some adjustments and effectively turned things around in the second quarter. Their ball movement started clicking, leading to multiple open looks from around the perimeter.

Harden's overall game is much more efficient when he plays with the explosiveness and bounce he showed in the first quarter. It opens up his three-point stroke, which has heated up over the last three games, and allows him to use his outside shot as a secondary skill rather than when he has to force up bad shots due to lacking the burst he needs to be able to consistently get past his man and get to the basket.

Harden cooled off a bit in the second quarter as he switched over to playing more of a complimentary role alongside Embiid (more on that below). However, he took advantage of his ability to get to the rim to draw a handful of fouls as the pace of the game slowed down late in the third quarter.

One player who has begun to excel playing next to Harden is Tobias Harris. He put together another good night and is really beginning to settle into his new role in the offense. He played aggressively at times, scoring 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting from the field. While his outside shot was not falling (he shot 2-of-8 from three-point range), he had it clicking from everywhere else on the court.

In addition to his success as a scorer, he also rebounded the ball well and played solid defense, finishing with 10 rebounds and three steals. Harris is not always going to be one of the team's go-to scoring options, making it all the more important he continues to contribute in other areas of the floor like he did against the Bucks.

Embiid uses pick-and-roll game to turn it around after slow start

The Bucks came into the game with a good game plan for how to defend Embiid. The big man was flustered early on and struggled, connecting on just one of his first eight shot attempts.

However, things began to click for Embiid late in the second quarter. He scored or assisted on the Sixers' final 12 points of the quarter due in large part to his success playing alongside Harden.

The Sixers have proven they, against most teams, can successfully execute both the pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll between Harden and Embiid. It is something the duo has quickly gotten comfortable with and is immensely difficult to slow down due to the plethora of options it generates for the offense. Embiid performs the pick and can either pop at the three-point line or around the free-throw line or roll to the basket. After the slow start, he would go on to score 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the field.

Brook Lopez did a solid job defending Embiid, albeit often with the help of a double-team, but he is no match for Embiid when they get matched up one on one. Embiid bullied Lopez into the paint, drawing an and-one late in the fourth quarter.

Danny Green, who has been stringing together some solid performances off the bench over the last week or two, once again played more minutes than Matisse Thybulle. Green played in 23 minutes, scoring nine points on 3-of-5 shooting from beyond the arc to go along with four rebounds. Thybulle played 21 minutes and finished with two points, two steals and a block. With Green is knocking down his threes at a solid clip over the last few games, the Sixers continued to try to match up some of his minutes alongside Embiid. Thybulle does not provide much offensively and it is imperative to surround Embiid with shooters to make the offense run more efficiently.

Antetokounmpo's huge night, Sixers fourth quarter struggles

There is a reason why Antetokounmpo is once again a candidate for MVP this season. He is a special talent and he had his way against everyone the Sixers tried throwing up against him. Embiid came the closest to at least slowing him down, but he was drawn away a lot playing help defense.

Antetokounmpo did most of his damage around the paint, but he had a particularly good night shooting the ball from the mid-range. He is already a handful defensively even when his outside shot is not falling. When he has his touch going out of the post, he becomes nearly unstoppable.

Head coach Doc Rivers chose to play Paul Millsap as the Sixers' backup center over DeAndre Jordan. The Millsap minutes did not go well as he proved to be no match for the stronger, more physical Antetokounmpo. Millsap was a minus-five in nine minutes off the bench.

The Sixers built up a 10-point lead at halftime, but the lead was whittled down to eight heading into the fourth quarter. Rivers sent out a lineup consisting of neither Embiid or Harden. Antetokounmpo was out on the floor, and he took advantage and got whatever he wanted against the undersized Millsap. By the time Rivers made the decision to put Embiid back in the game with 9:22 remaining, the Bucks had cut the lead down to two points.

Running out a lineup without Embiid or Harden on the floor can be done at certain points throughout the game, but in the fourth quarter against the Bucks is not one of those times. Attempting to do that in this context is just another example of Rivers' poor game management.

The Bucks would pull ahead by six points midway through the fourth quarter. The Sixers were able to cut the lead down to one point on multiple occasions due to a pair of Georges Niang clutch threes in the final minutes. Despite being ice cold up to that point, Niang had the confidence to continue to pull the trigger. He has developed a penchant for knocking down key shots in the fourth quarter of games this season, and this game was no different.

The Sixers had a chance down two with 12.4 seconds remaining. Harden drew a mismatch with Lopez and missed a step-back three. Embiid grabbed the rebound and his put-back shot was blocked by Antetokounmpo with 1.6 seconds left. The call was originally ruled a goaltend before being overturned and effectively snuffing out the Sixers' hopes of coming away with the win.

The Sixers took the Bucks down to the wire in what was an intense game through and through. They ultimately fell short in what could be a preview of a potential playoff series between the two teams.

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