3 observations after Sixers drop dramatic game to Giannis and the Bucks


For a second straight game, the Sixers impressed in taking a substantial lead on a defending conference champion but couldn’t seal the deal. 

After falling Sunday to the Suns, the team dropped a dramatic 118-116 decision Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center to the Bucks.

Down two points with 12.4 seconds left, James Harden drew Brook Lopez on a switch. He missed a step-back three-pointer, but Joel Embiid grabbed the rebound and looked like he was about to tie the game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo flew in to save the day, though. His block was first ruled goaltending, but the officials overturned the play upon review. That led to a jump ball with 1.6 seconds remaining and meant the Sixers had no more chances.

Antetokounmpo recorded 40 points on 16-for-24 shooting, 14 rebounds and six assists in a special performance. 

Harden notched 32 points and nine assists. 

Embiid had 29 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Tobias Harris posted 22 points and 11 boards. 

The Sixers now sit at 46-29, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and will face the Pistons on Thursday night in Detroit. Here are observations on their tight loss to the Bucks: 

Embiid takes on Lopez 

Facing Brook Lopez for the first time this season, Embiid nailed a mid-range jumper on the Sixers’ first possession but did not begin the game well. He misfired on his next seven field goals. 

Lopez, who missed the majority of this year with a back injury, made a trailing three-pointer in transition for the Bucks’ first basket. The veteran big man and Milwaukee as a team were solid on Embiid, sending extra defenders at the right times. Embiid committed two first-quarter turnovers, one when he set a moving screen for Tyrese Maxey and the other when he was stripped by Jrue Holiday late in the shot clock.

His teammates didn’t help him out much initially. After Holiday dug down on an Embiid post-up against Bobby Portis, Embiid kicked the ball out to an open Harden. That seems a better option for the Sixers when a regular catch-and-shoot player like Georges Niang or Danny Green is on the strong side; Harden’s three hit the underside of the backboard. 

“I feel like they’re rotating to me, so the swing-swing (pass) is there," Harden said. “But that’s something I do have to get used to, being ball-dominant for so many years now. A guy like Jo gets double teamed in the post and the ball gets swung to me, sometimes I’ve got to shoot it. So I’ll watch film and try to get better as time goes on.”

To Harden’s credit, he capitalized on a similar opportunity after Embiid found a rhythm late in the second quarter. He took an Embiid kick-out pass, pump faked, and dribbled into a long-range jumper that put the Sixers up 57-46. Embiid and the Sixers had a strong stretch after Portis picked up his third foul and Serge Ibaka entered for his first minutes of the night.  

Lopez opened the second half hot, scoring on an and-one layup, two three-pointers, and a dunk off of a weak-side cut. He couldn’t sustain the magic, though, and Embiid forced him to work on the other end of the floor. A rolling Embiid lay-in assisted by Harden restored a 72-62 Sixers lead. 

The Sixers liked Embiid against Lopez in the post in the fourth quarter, especially because the Bucks appeared fine with not throwing hard double teams at the five-time All-Star every time. Embiid tied the game at 102-all with a layup through Lopez contact, but he missed the ensuing foul shot.

Though Embiid made a three to trim the Bucks' edge to 117-116, he couldn't convert a go-ahead mid-range attempt on a late after-timeout play. 

Greek Freak vs. Millsap sure not ideal 

Antetokounmpo saw a rotating cast of defenders, none of whom appeared likely to stop him when he had downhill momentum. 

Harris was first up. Niang got the next crack and Antetokounmpo went right at him, throwing down a lefty dunk despite Embiid’s attempted swat. He then knocked down a pull-up jumper over Niang. 

Paul Millsap backed up Embiid, removing DeAndre Jordan from the rotation after an 11-game run. Millsap was nowhere near an Antetokounmpo antidote. In his first stint, he allowed a turnaround jumper and a Euro-stepping layup. Antetokounmpo also emphatically dismissed a Millsap layup try. The third quarter didn’t turn out any better for the 37-year-old Millsap. Antetokounmpo singlehandedly cut a 13-point deficit to six with two layups and a pull-up three. 

The fourth quarter was more of the same — automatic baskets for Antetokounmpo on every possession — and the Bucks trailed by only two when Sixers head coach Doc Rivers called timeout early in the fourth quarter so Embiid could return. 

“I thought Millsap in the first half was good, in the second half he struggled," Rivers said. “Didn’t like DJ (for this game). We almost went with Paul Reed. That’s who we were between. But in Milwaukee, that was a tough matchup for Paul with Giannis."

Reed didn't appear in the Sixers' Feb. 17 road win over the Bucks, but Rivers was presumably referring to the 22-year-old's night in a shorthanded November defeat. 

Embiid identified Antetokounmpo's second-half scoring spree as when "the game really changed," which shouldn't be controversial.

“I was on the bench," he said. “The whole time that I was on the floor, I really made sure that I was always there to help. I thought we didn’t follow that strategy, we didn’t build a wall, and he had a lot of free lanes to just attack and get whatever he wanted. And that just changed the game. Maybe next time just match up the minutes.”

Just as they’d done for that February meeting against the Sixers, Milwaukee started with the reigning Finals MVP on Matisse Thybulle and lurking around for chances to play disruptive help defense. Though Thybulle wasn’t a half-court threat, he flew ahead of the pack and, after a long-distance Harden pass, slammed in a fast-break dunk to give the Sixers a 49-41 lead late in the second quarter. That was his only shot attempt. Thybulle spent time on both Khris Middleton (22 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) and Holiday (18 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds).

Danny Green, Shake Milton and Niang all chipped in scoring off the Sixers’ four-man bench, which totaled 24 points. 

Green, who was called for a fourth-quarter Flagrant 1 foul after hard, above-the-shoulder contact to stop an Antetokounmpo layup, played 23 minutes and Thybulle got 20.

Niang closed the game out and drained two three-pointers down the stretch. When a Niang triple cut Milwaukee's lead to 112-111, Antetokounmpo answered with a big jumper. And when a Harris put-back layup again put the Sixers down one, Holiday responded with a clutch triple. Everyone who showed up Tuesday got their money's worth entertainment-wise. 

Harden locked in early 

Harden’s approach offensively was excellent early, and he showcased a quick first step on several drives to the rim. 

He posted 12 points in the first quarter on 4-for-5 shooting and shrugged aside any lingering disappointment about his 2-for-11 outing in Sunday’s loss to Phoenix. Ten-time All-Stars don’t tend to fret about a poor showing or two. 

“Just being aggressive and not worrying about anything but being aggressive," Harden said. “Getting my teammates involved will happen. But that was my mindset tonight.”

Harden passed up a couple of potential threes in the third quarter, but he continued to pressure the Bucks’ defense as a ball handler. With Milwaukee switching on Harden-Embiid pick-and-rolls in the third quarter, the Sixers’ main mode of attack was feeding Embiid at the nail against Wesley Matthews, Holiday or whichever smaller man was assigned to Harden. That didn’t always produce points, but the Sixers generally created good looks and seemed to have a clear plan.

Though the Sixers aren’t fixated on the standings, Harden played with a big-game intensity. He blocked a Grayson Allen three-point attempt late in the third quarter and, with the Sixers badly requiring shot creation during Embiid’s second-half rest, drew and made four foul shots over the final 33.6 seconds of the period. 

Harden made a three to trim the Sixers' deficit to 108-105 in the fourth, but those were his only points in the final quarter.

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