3:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Bucks -7.5, Over/Under: 228
The East’s elite clash for the second time in three nights as the Milwaukee Bucks look gain another game on the Philadelphia 76ers in the standings in what will be the final be the final meeting between these sides during the Regular Season, from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With less than a month before the Playoffs begin, now is certainly not the time to find oneself embroiled in a losing streak, yet that is precisely where the 76ers (39-20, 1st in Eastern Conference) are, which even more troublesome when you consider how tight the competition is at the top of the conference. Philadelphia has managed to cling to first place for the majority of the campaign, though since the Brooklyn Nets engineered blockbuster trade that netted them (no pun intended) James Harden, they have been breathing down their neck for months. If the Playoffs were to start today, the Sixers would indeed be in first place on the strength of holding the tiebreaker between the two teams, but after three consecutive losses, a fourth could see them lose control of the top overall seed within the conference. Why is this important, you ask? Obtaining the one seed would guarantee that they would avoid one of the Nets or Bucks en route to the Conference Finals, whereas anything less would mean facing both to reach that goal, not to mention a more difficult matchup in the First Round of the Playoffs. Of course, after getting swept in last year’s opening round, we highly doubt that anyone within the organization will be taking their potential opponents lightly. After all this is a different Sixers team than the one that proceeded it, both in personnel and in attitude, what with the shakeup of bringing in the likes of (Vice President of Basketball Operations) Daryl Morey alongside (Head Coach) Doc Rivers to reorganize a talented, yet ill-fitting roster that ultimately proved to be less than the sum of it’s parts. Gone are (All-Star Forward) Al Horford and Josh Richardson, and welcome to the City of Brotherly Love to the likes of (sharpshooting Guard) Seth Curry (12.1 PTS, 44.7% FG, 41.8% 3FG, 2.1 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 11.7 PER), and (reigning NBA Champions) Danny Green (9.7 PTS, 42.2% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK, 12.3 PER) and Dwight Howard (6.6 PTS, 58.5% FG, 8.3 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.9 BLK, 16.5 PER), along with (veteran Guard) George Hill (6.3 PTS, 57.1% FG, 66.7% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.0 BLK, 10.3 PER), who was acquired at the Trade Deadline. These addition shave helped unclog the frontcourt and bring some sorely-needed spacing and shooting to the attack, evolving Philadelphia into one of the most balanced contenders in the league, and at the forefront has been (All-NBA Center) Joel Embiid (30.0 PTS, 51.3% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 11.1 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.4 BLK, 31.2 PER), who many believe is the frontrunner for MVP, even after missing ten games due to a knee injury. This season has seen a renaissance at the Center position, and the Cameroon International has been one of the very best; in the best shape of his career under Rivers’ guidance, the 27-year old has posted career-highs in a slew of categories including points (30.0), field goal percentage (51.3%), two-point percentage (54.1%), three-point percentage (37.5%), free-throw percentage (85.1%), steals (1.0), and PER (31.2). Furthermore, his frequent trips to the stripe have seen him net 9.9 singles per game, with an outside chance of becoming the first player since WILT CHAMBERLAIN to record at least ten free-throws per game. And speaking of free-throws, he’s accounting for just under half of his team’s 19.9 free-throws, which leads the Association, along with attempts (26.1 FTA). Since returning from that injury, Embiid has averaged 30.1 points with over a third of that figure coming at the charity stripe (10.3), netting ten or more in six of the last ten contests, highlighted by a season-high 16-of-18 in a narrow 106-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on April 16th. With that said, this is no one-man band in the City of Brotherly Love, for there is plenty of firepower to be found on a roster packed with weapons. Both Green and Curry have provided the necessary spacing to create opportunities for (All-Star Point Guard) Ben Simmons (14.8 PTS, 54.5% FG, 30.0% 3FG, 7.6 REB, 7.1 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 18.0 PER) and (veteran Swingman) Tobias Harris (20.4 PTS, 52.0% FG, 40.5% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 3.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 20.6 PER), who have both flourished under Rivers’ tutelage, with the former emerging as the league’s most formidable perimeter defender, while the latter has also posted a number of career-bests, including scoring (20.4), field goal percentage (52.0%), three-point percentage (40.5%), and assists (3.7). Simmons’ absence of late due to an illness has been telling, for the 76ers have lost all three of the games that the former No. One Overall Pick (2016) has missed. Though he has yet to develop into anything remotely close to a competent perimeter shooter, the freakish, 6-10 Point Guard remains a proverbial swiss army knife, pushing the attack in transition while taking advantage of smaller opponents in the post. Oh, and if there is a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year, then show us someone else who can successfully guard every position on the court. Philadelphia has yielded a respectable 108.8 points per game (7th Overall) on 45.5% shooting from the field (5th Overall), including 51.0% shooting within the arc (2nd Overall) and 36.4% beyond it (11th Overall), while securing a defensive rebounding percentage of 79.3% (5th Overall), and forcing 15.4 turnovers (4th Overall), 8.9 of which have been steals (2nd Overall), along with yielding just 23.5 assists (6th Overall) and logging 6.3 blocks a night (2nd Overall). However, as we saw in Thursday Night’s performance at Milwaukee, when you take away the tip of the spear, the rest of the weapon struggles to find it’s mark….
“We were soft tonight… We didn’t put up much resistance.”Doc Rivers on the 76ers’ slow start in their 124-117 defeat at the Bucks on Thursday Night, which saw them relinquish their hold on First Place in the Eastern Conference.
When we last saw the 76ers, they lost their third consecutive game without the aforementioned Simmons, dropping their second meeting with the Milwaukee Bucks this season in a 124-117 affair that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would lead you to believe. Playing for the fifth time in eight days, Philadelphia clearly looked fatigued throughout the early stages of the contest, as the hosts raced out to an 40-26 lead in the First Quarter, in which their offense nothing short of overwhelming; the Bucks shot an insane 14-of-19 from the field (73.7%), assisting on eleven of their fourteen field goals, while also dropping 6-of-9 attempts from the perimeter (66.7%). The home side would lead by no less than ten the rest of the First Half, taking a commanding 77-60 advantage into Halftime, though Rivers’ charges would slowly chip away at that deficit, even cutting it to five at one point late in the final period as their opponent had removed most of their Starting Five from the hardwood. Of course, this was all a case of too little too late, for the East leaders simply didn’t do enough earlier in the affair to make their late rally count. In a game in which both competitors shot over 50.0% from the field, the biggest difference came from beyond the arc, where the Sixers were blown out of the water, outscored by a whopping TWENTY-FOUR points despite knocking down a stellar 12-of-27 themselves (44.4%). Embiid finished with twenty-four points but was held in check on 9-of-21 shooting (42.9%), including scoreless from downtown (0-of-4 3FG) and only a modest (for him at least) 6-of-7 from the free-throw line (85.7%). Harris added eighteen points on 8-of-16 shooting (50.0%) with six assists, while Curry chipped in with eleven, with Hill and Green managing a combined six between them. Rivers would pull the majority of his starters in the Fourth Quarter, leaving the reserves to mount the unexpected comeback; Shake Milton (13.4 PTS, 45.0% FG, 34.5% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 3.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 14.2 PER) scored twenty points, with nine of that total coming in the final frame of play, while Mike Scott (4.5 PTS, 37.5% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 2.6 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.5 STL, 6.7 PER) and Tyrese Maxey (7.2 PTS, 44.9% FG, 27.8% 3FG, 1.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 12.6 PER) posted eleven points apiece off the Bench, which as a unit accounted for fifty-eight points, including half of their team’s total in the First Half (30). With that said, that’s also a telltale sign of the Starting Five’s struggles, which clearly missed the creative engine that Simmons is on a regular basis. It remains to be seen if he will be healthy enough to compete in tonight’s matchup between these giants, for another loss to Milwaukee will not only drop them out of first, but only 1.5 games away from third.
Meanwhile, the train of thought surrounding the Bucks (36-22, 3rd in Eastern Conference) this season is that they aren’t quite the same team that they were over the previous two campaigns, though that may not necessarily be a bad thing. You see, despite going a ridiculous 116-39 () from 2018 to 2020, Milwaukee flamed out in the Playoffs on both occasions even though they were heavily-favored in each series in which they fell. They also possessed the MVP of the NBA over that period of time, with (All-NBA Forward) Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.5 PTS, 56.4% FG, 29.9% 3FG, 11.3 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 28.8 PER) earning back-to-back honors, while also becoming only third player in league history to also take home Defensive Player of the Year honors as well, joining Hall of Famers such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan. When you do things like that in the Regular Season yet routinely come up short in the Postseason, you unfortunately earn a reputation for being a Regular Season monster, yet unable to adjust within the confines of a series against a proper formidable opponent. As harsh as that may sound, it is the perception surrounding this team, though there may be reason to believe that they’re indeed better equipped to dispel that belief this time around. Sure, they’re unlikely to enter the Playoffs with home court advantage, let alone in the East where both the Nets and 76ers have established themselves as dominant powerhouses in their own right, but everything they’ve done from a personnel perspective both during the Offseason and at the Trade Deadline indicates a group that is better prepared for the issues that they will be sure to face in a month’s time. After inking Giannis to the richest contract extension in the history of the Association (five years/$218 million), the Bucks added (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (17.2 PTS, 50.4% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.7 STL, 19.8 PER) in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, receiving a huge upgrade at the Point Guard position, which had become a real liability in the Playoffs of late. Replacing Eric Bledsoe, the 30-year old is nothing short of a venerable floor general who fits (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s system far better tan his predecessor did, featuring a more confident stroke from the perimeter (39.9%) and greater size and length to hound opposing guards on the defensive end of the hardwood. Holiday has helped steer the highest-scoring attack in the league at 119.4 points per game, which is really saying something when you consider the firepower that their direct competition in the East has. (Two-time All-Star Forward) Khris Middleton (20.3 PTS, 48.1% FG, 43.0% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.5 PER) has continued to grow with better playmaking around him, shooting a career-high 43.0% from beyond the arc, while developing into more of a playmaker in his own right, dishing out 5.6 assists, also a career-best. The same can be said for Antetokounmpo, who is dishing out a career-high 6.0 dimes, as the ball-movement and spacing in Milwaukee has proven to be a thing of beauty at times this season. The club would add further reinforcements at the Trade Deadline, acquiring (veteran Forward) P.J. Tucker (2.4 PTS, 38.9% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 0.5 AST, 7.6 PER) in an attempt to get tougher and more physical; the 35-year old has long been a 3 & D specialist, and has proven to thrive in a set up like the one he has joined in Wisconsin, camping out on the perimeter offensively while getting his hands dirty on the defensive end. He should certainly prove his value once the Bucks get deeper into the Playoffs. With that said, when they do get to that stage of game, they’re going to need to prove that they’re able to create for themselves when they’re perimeter shooting betrays them. This is not a team that gets to the free-throw line very much, averaging just 20.8 attempts per game (22nd Overall), and they still have a bit of a habit of clearing out the lane and relying upon Giannis to make something happen. Defensively, they’ve also been gashed by the money ball quite a bit too, though that has been by design as Budenholzer’s tactics flushes the basketball out to the corners where opponents have been all too happy to let it rain; the Deer have allowed the third-most attempts (38.9) and makes (14.6) from downtown thus far at a rate of 37.6% (24th Overall). However, this is a team that does not give the opposition cheap points from the stripe, for while they don’t spend much time there themselves, no team commits fewer fouls than the Bucks at a paltry 16.9 personal fouls a night, parlaying to just 14.2 free-throws on 17.9 attempts. You can see how those factors give them an edge against a side like the Sixers, who frequently control the game by taking residence at the line.
“We were moving the ball, knocking down shots. From the start, everybody was locked in… I think playing teams like this, back to back, it’s awesome because it prepares you for the Playoffs.”Giannis Antetokounmpo on the Bucks’ 124-117 victory over the 76ers, which snapped a five-game home losing streak against some of the better teams in the NBA.
When we last saw the Bucks, they managed to best the 76ers for the second time this season, taking advantage of some tired legs as they themselves enjoyed quite a bit of rest given they hadn’t competed since Monday Night’s 128-127 overtime defeat at home to the Phoenix Suns. If styles make fights, then as we hinted at earlier, Milwaukee has something on Philadelphia, which was rather evident given how they jumped all over them in the First Quarter; Budenholzer’s troops shot a ridiculous 73.7% from the field in the first twelve minutes of action, with the triumvirate of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday accounting for twenty-six points between them, scoring as many points as the Sixers did as team in the period. The hosts would lead by as many as twenty-one and it wouldn’t be until the Starting Five took what was supposed to be their curtain call that Philly’s reserves managed to work their way back into the affair, even cutting the lead to five inside of a minute left to play. Budenholzer would reinsert Giannis and Co to kill off the matter, as the home side would draw another game closer to the Eastern leaders within the standings. Against one of the best defensive teams in the league, the Bucks looked overwhelming offensively, shooting 55.6% overall, including a prolific 20-of-40 from beyond the arc (50.0%), outscoring the visiting side by a staggering TWENTY-FOUR points on the night. Missed free-throws (14-of-23 FTA) helped shorten the gulf between them, though the Deer managed to keep their opponent from doing much damage their themselves, relegating the 76ers to just eighteen free-throws, of which only thirteen were made. There is certainly something to this, for in both of their meetings with them thus far, the 76ers have attempted just twenty-six free-throws, parlaying to an average of 9.0 makes on 13.0 attempts per matchup, making these guys one of the few teams that they’ve averaged single-digit singles against. Three different players scored over twenty points for the hosts, led by Antetokounmpo, with the Greek International totaling twenty-seven points on 8-of-15 shooting (53.3%), sixteen rebounds, six assists, a pair of steals and a block. Middleton added twenty-four points on a stellar 10-of-16 shooting from the field (62.5%), including 4-of-7 from downtown (57.1%), and five dimes. Holiday dished eleven assists to go with twelve points of his own, while (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (11.7 PTS, 48.5% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 0.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.4 BLK, 14.7 PER) contributed with sixteen points and knocking down 4-of-7 treys (57.1%). However, the biggest surprise of the night was Bobby Portis (11.4 PTS, 52.8% FG, 48.5% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.7 PER), who has really found a place within Budenholzer’s system, scoring a season-high twenty-three points in just over twenty-two minutes off the Bench, on a scintillating 9-of-11 shooting (81.8%), including a perfect 5-of-5 from the perimeter. On his fourth team in three years, the 26-year old has thrived in his role of a stretch four, shooting a career-high 48.5% from three, and netting the fifth-most treys in the league (64). Players like these prove to be the x-factors on championship level teams, and the Bucks are hoping that this will be the case in a month’s time.