Joel Embiid and the Sixers will enter the All-Star break on a very satisfying note and with lots of reasons for optimism.
Behind yet another performance that bolstered Embiid’s MVP case, the Sixers improved to 35-23 with a 123-120 win Thursday night over the Bucks in Milwaukee. Khris Middleton missed a three-pointer at the final buzzer that would've sent the game to overtime.
Embiid had 42 points, 14 rebounds and five assists.
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 32 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists.
Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen and DeAndre’ Bembry were out with injuries.
James Harden will continue rehabilitation on his left hamstring through the All-Star break.
The Sixers’ first game after the break is a road matchup with the Timberwolves on Feb. 25. Here are observations on their win over the Bucks:
Niang start pays off
Georges Niang replaced Danny Green in the starting lineup. In his first start since Dec. 3, Niang was given the generally impossible job of guarding Antetokounmpo.
He was far from the only defender the Sixers used on the two-time MVP; Danny Green and Embiid were among the others. As usual, the game plan involved double teaming Antetokounmpo when possible, limiting his open-floor chances and living with his jumpers.
Niang scored 18 points, made 5 of 10 three-point tries, and took a fourth-quarter charge on Antetokounmpo. Strong effort by Niang in a difficult spot, and a successful move by Sixers head coach Doc Rivers to start him.
Antetokounmpo began the game defending Matisse Thybulle and serving as a defensive roamer, a strategy which seems to be growing in popularity against the Sixers. The logic behind it is sound: Might as well give an impactful help defender freedom to do his thing, since Thybulle doesn’t tend to inflict much offensive damage. After an 0-for-6 shooting game in a blowout loss Tuesday to the Celtics, Thybulle went 0 for 1 from the floor and recorded no points.
Thybulle declined an open three-pointer from the wing in the second quarter but got the ball back later in the possession. He pump faked, lost control on a drive, and created a transition opportunity that eventually ended in an Antetokounmpo basket. Furkan Korkmaz (13 points on 5-for-8 shooting) started the second half over Thybulle, who only played 14 minutes.
Embiid started with an aggressive mindset, taking just about any shot that came his way. He made two early three-pointers and scored 12 points in the opening quarter.
His offensive variety was characteristically astounding all night. Milwaukee hasn't been a great defensive unit of late, but Embiid's step-back, shot clock-beating threes and fadeaway jumpers weren't shots that any team would've stopped.
Maxey's second-quarter show
Though Tobias Harris and Embiid combined for 22 first-quarter points, the Sixers only had 24 as a team and trailed by three through 12 minutes.
Reluctance to shoot was not an issue outside of Thybulle, but the Sixers missed 13 of their first 17 three-point shots, fell behind 53-41 on a Bobby Portis fast-break layup, and appeared to be in a dangerous spot.
Tyrese Maxey then reminded the Bucks he was worth worrying about. The 21-year-old keyed an explosive 14-2 Sixers run in which he made a three, an and-one layup, and a pull-up jumper to tie the game at 55-all.
After sharing some sideline advice for Maxey, Harden liked what he saw.
We’ll see how the Harden-Maxey relationship develops, but Maxey’s openness to coaching and criticism has been a major asset early in his NBA career. Perhaps Harden can help his progress with drawing fouls and decision-making off of drives.
Of course, Maxey’s got plenty of promising tools already. It’s easy to ask a player to “pick his spots,” but not many can press the gas and produce game-turning spurts like Maxey did Thursday.
Though Maxey's shots didn't drop the remainder of the evening, he committed zero of the Sixers' 12 turnovers in his 40 minutes and hit two important free throws to extend the team's lead to 123-118 with 8.4 seconds left.
MVP candidates square off down the stretch
Paul Millsap backed up Embiid and Paul Reed did not play. Whatever the Sixers do in the buyout market, early indications are that Millsap is still a capable NBA player at 37 years old.
He made a jump hook over Portis, drew a charge on Middleton, and was quite solid overall in his 11 minutes for someone who'd been playing pickup games over the last few weeks as he waited for the Nets to trade him.
The Sixers had a 25-10 bench scoring edge and got back-to-back threes from Korkmaz early in the third quarter to stretch their lead to 15 points.
However, the game was destined to be decided by Antetokounmpo and Embiid. Antetokounmpo was powerful and perpetually threatening in the fourth quarter. He also knocked down two long-range shots, the second of which put the Bucks up 116-112.
If Embiid does become the first Sixers MVP winner since Allen Iverson, the final few minutes of this game will likely come to mind. He sunk a Dirk Nowitzki-esque, one-legged jumper and made three foul shots in an 8-0 run, as well as walling off Antetokounmpo defensively before the reigning Finals MVP turned the ball over.
The Sixers have significant flaws even after trading for Harden, but Embiid's superstardom means that almost anything seems possible once they return from the break.