Sixers observations: Defense struggles against Bucks with Ben Simmons still sidelined

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Noah Levick
·6 min read
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3 observations after Sixers' defense has poor night against Milwaukee originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

If their season ended Thursday night, the tiebreaker the Sixers hold over the Nets would have come in handy.

The Sixers lost their third consecutive game, 124-117 to the Bucks, in the first contest of a mini-series. They’re 39-20 on the season, the same record as Brooklyn. 

Unlike Wednesday night in Philadelphia, Thursday’s matchup at Fiserv Forum was not especially competitive. Milwaukee built a 20-point first-quarter lead and didn’t run into any serious trouble in holding off the Sixers.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 27 points, 16 rebounds and six assists. Khris Middleton scored 24 points on 10-for-16 shooting and Bobby Portis had 23 points off the bench.

As a team, the Bucks shot 20 for 40 from 3-point range.

Joel Embiid posted 24 points on 9-for-21 shooting, three rebounds and three assists. Tobias Harris returned following a three-game absence due to right knee soreness and recorded 18 points and six assists.

Ben Simmons missed a third consecutive game with an illness. Furkan Korkmaz was also out after spraining his right ankle Wednesday. 

The Sixers will play Milwaukee again Saturday afternoon. Head coach Doc Rivers was asked whether Simmons would be available.

“I don’t know," he said. “We’ll see. Right now I would say 50-50 at best, and I’m an optimist. But I don’t know.”

Here are three observations on the Sixers' loss: 

Bucks’ offense has its way  

Jrue Holiday scored the game’s first five points, followed by five from Middleton. 

Though the Sixers eventually started scoring, their defensive struggles persisted. Milwaukee made its first 10 field goals and shot 73.7 percent from the floor in the first quarter. There was no confusion about which team was fully healthy and well-rested and which was playing on the second night of a back-to-back without a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. 

“This would be the game of all the games that Ben would be very important for us,” Rivers said pregame. “It is what it is.”

He was responding to a question about Antetokounmpo, whom Simmons had defended effectively on March 17, but his answer rang true for the night as a whole. 

The first-quarter woes were an anomaly for the Sixers this season. They entered Thursday’s game outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per game in the opening period, second in the NBA.

Despite shooting 53.3 percent from the floor, the Sixers trailed by 17 points at halftime. Wide-open drive-and-kick 3s, contested Middleton jumpers and long-range Brook Lopez bombs were among the many things that hurt the Sixers’ defense. 

The team’s overall level improved after that 10-for-10 Bucks start — how could it not? — but Milwaukee looked exceedingly comfortable and destined to score whenever the Sixers needed to execute multiple defensive rotations. This was a poor defensive performance, one not completely excused by Simmons’ illness and the disparity in rest between the teams. 

“Everybody seemed fatigued. ... I just felt like we were late on everything," Rivers said. “We were soft tonight defensively. That first quarter, they got every shot they wanted and we didn’t put much resistance up.”

Embiid comes up empty on back-to-back 

Embiid began rolling in the second quarter after a 1-for-6 start, going to work in the mid-post. 

Lopez was solid defensively in terms of approach — contest jumpers without getting handsy, corral drives as well as one can against an absurdly agile 7-footer — but Embiid believed he could score on him at any time, and for good reason. That’s the case for practically every one of his matchups. Still, Lopez and the Bucks did well.

From the Sixers’ perspective, it has to sting a bit that Embiid played both games of this back-to-back and the team couldn’t come away with any wins. 

On the other end of the floor, Embiid spent time on Antetokounmpo like he has in the past, though he didn't start on him.

“I love Joel on Giannis, but we played last night," Rivers said. “Right now we have Tobias just coming back, Seth just coming back. We really felt strongly that we can’t have him on Giannis to start the game. We don’t want to kill him. Obviously, if that’s a playoff game, you have Ben or Joel on him. That would be what we would do. That’s why I don’t get lost in regular-season games. We would’ve had a different matchup. ... We played last night. I’m more concerned about getting through the game.”

The Bucks didn’t require the reigning MVP’s absolute best, though he ramped up his aggression in the second half.

In a potential playoff meeting, the Sixers would, we assume, look to devise game plans that maximize the amount Simmons guards Antetokounmpo. Limiting his transition and downhill driving opportunities would be other obvious priorities. 

Anyone familiar with the Sixers knows transition defense has been problematic throughout the season, although their half-court defense was well below its normal standard Thursday. 

“Well, it’s definitely our M.O.,” Rivers said before the game of the Sixers' transition issues. “But I absolutely believe that it’s something we can get better at, and I’m going to say we will be better at it by the time the playoffs start. If you’re going up against us and you don’t have that in your scouting report, then you should fire your scouts.”

A silver lining 

Shake Milton snapped a 3-for-17 stretch with a 20-point effort on 8-for-14 shooting.

The third-year guard made three of five 3s and also converted mid-range jumpers, a floater and a runner. Milton’s performance should alleviate concerns that he might have been slumping his way entirely out of the Sixers’ postseason rotation. Even if quite a few of Milton’s points came when the game was out of hand, it was still positive to see him shoot with confidence and play with less apparent hesitation. 

“Nothing changed," Milton said. “Shoot when you’re open, pass when you’re not. The game’s always going to tell you what to do. Just be locked in and make plays.”

Tyrese Maxey drained two of his four 3-point tries, raising his season percentage to 27.8. The rookie had 11 points and five assists in his 19 minutes. 

George Hill started against one of his former teams and scored six points on 3-for-4 shooting. 

One minor piece of news with the Sixers’ bench: The team on Thursday signed Anthony Tolliver to a second 10-day contract. Once that deal is up, the Sixers must decide whether to keep him for the remainder of the season. 

Tolliver played 14 minutes last week vs. the Clippers but has otherwise been outside of the Sixers’ rotation. He was one of the deep bench players who played the final few minutes against Milwaukee. The case for retaining him is that he’d provide mature frontcourt depth in an emergency situation, and that he’s eager to help off the floor by supporting the young players who don’t play regularly. We’ll see what the Sixers do in 10 days.