The irony of the Sixers' massive comeback win over the Bucks

The irony of the Sixers' massive comeback win in Milwaukee originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

No, that’s not how anyone on the Sixers drew up their best win of the regular season.

“When you’re playing against good teams, you can’t relax,” Joel Embiid said last weekend after the team squandered a 15-point third-quarter lead to the Celtics. “It’s a 48-minute game.”

He stressed a similar point after the Sixers fell Monday to the Heat.

“For us to win, we’re going to have to be almost perfect,” Embiid said. “We can’t have nights like these last couple of games. We’ve got to be locked in all game from the start.”

In the big picture, that all seems sound. However, the Sixers tossed logic aside Saturday in snapping the Bucks’ 16-game winning streak by erasing an 18-point deficit on the road. 

Rather ironically, they were flawed all over the place in Milwaukee. Embiid and James Harden in the second quarter combined to shoot 3 for 13 from the floor. In the first half, the Bucks’ bench appeared physical, playoff-hardened and downright superior to the Sixers’ second unit. Basic breakdowns left Grayson Allen with uncontested threes deep into his 20-point third quarter.

The Sixers’ luck also wasn’t good. Tobias Harris (left calf soreness) and PJ Tucker (back spasms) both left the game with injuries. Tucker told reporters in Milwaukee he’d been “fighting back spasms the last two days and today just went crazy,” per Sixers Wire’s Ky Carlin. 

With Harris and Tucker ruled out, Embiid (31 points) and Tyrese Maxey (26 points) sat at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Trailing by 14, the Sixers used Harden alongside four bench players against an opponent that didn’t lose in the month of February and sported a league-best 105.8 defensive rating during their streak. 

Georges Niang isn’t the kind of guy who cares about any of that. Niang, who’d shot just 22.9 percent from three-point range over his last 10 contests, nailed four massive three-pointers in the first six minutes of the fourth. He’s long understood that if he’s on the floor, it’s imperative that he fires up jumpers and keeps believing they’ll go in.

“I’ll tell you this: If I were to doubt myself and stop shooting, I could find myself on the bench,” Niang said after he’d hit four fourth-quarter threes in a Christmas win over the Knicks. “So you tell me: Would you take the alternative?

“I’m going to keep shooting. … Guys on this team are great, whether it’s Tyrese, De’Anthony (Melton), Joel, Tobias, James — telling me to keep shooting, and that they were going to fall. I think we all know the work that we put in to be successful. I don’t see myself stopping shooting anytime soon.”

Embiid this season hasn’t budged from his stance of trusting the fundamental play and believing everything will work out in the end. Though Brook Lopez was strong against Embiid on both ends of the floor, the Sixers’ All-Star big man posted 10 assists and only one turnover.

Watching Embiid celebrate Saturday night, his thoughts following the Sixers’ unsuccessful end-of-game play against Boston came to mind. He’d drawn a double team and kicked the ball out to Harden, whose potential game-winning three-pointer bounced off the back rim and out.

“We followed the game plan and we got a good shot,” Embiid said. “They came and doubled, and I made the right play. Just missed it. He’s going to make the next one.”

Harden indeed made a bunch of big ones against Milwaukee. He’d been fantastic back in October when the Sixers faced the Bucks in their home opener, recording 31 points, nine assists and eight rebounds in a tight loss. On that night, it was intriguing to see Harden’s confidence and craft in the mid-range. Saturday was mainly about Harden being a great version of the threes and free throws offensive machine that he’s been for over a decade.

He played the entire fourth quarter in a 38-point, 10-assist, nine-rebound performance and looked like a glaring All-Star omission. A long, “need to have it” three that cut the Sixers’ deficit to one point was the highlight play, but what truly stood out was Harden’s ability to conduct extremely efficient offense, apparently unaffected by fatigue. The Sixers scored 127.9 points per 100 half-court plays Saturday according to Cleaning the Glass, which ranks in the 99th percentile. Their half-court offense against top-10 defenses is now No. 4 in the NBA behind the Celtics, Mavs and Nuggets.

Harden is not routinely shedding defenders and drawing fouls like during his MVP-contending years with the Rockets, but he went 7 for 7 at the foul line in the fourth quarter and had solutions aplenty down the stretch. After a 5-for-9 evening from three-point range, he’s at a career-best 40.5 percent behind the arc.

Crucially, Paul Reed turned one of Harden’s fourth-quarter misses into three points. The Sixers have been at or near the bottom of the league throughout the season in offensive rebounding rate, but Reed and Jalen McDaniels attacked the glass on plays where Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were a tad too focused on whether a star’s shot would drop. McDaniels’ put-back slam was both fierce and essential.

The 45-18 Bucks have still been a better, more consistent team than the 41-22 Sixers, who will conclude their five-game road trip by playing the Pacers on Monday and the Timberwolves on Tuesday.

It’s still accurate to say the Sixers haven’t put it all together. You can view that in whatever light you’d like, but the bottom line is the Sixers somehow just beat the Bucks.