Bad crunch time from Embiid dooms Sixers in loss to Bucks: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers visited the Milwaukee Bucks to kick off their 2023-24 season on Thursday. Philadelphia wanted to prove that it could rise above the drama surrounding the James Harden situation with a road victory over a championship favorite to start the season. Milwaukee wanted to begin the Damian Lillard era with a home victory. A terrible sequence from Joel Embiid late in the fourth quarter doomed the Sixers, 118-117.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Harden, who is not with the team on their road trip as he reconditions back in Camden, New Jersey in preparation for a return to competition after being away for more than a week tending to a personal matter.
Terquavion Smith, Javonte Smart, and Ricky Council IV are on two-way G-League assignments in Camden and were unavailable.
Nick Nurse started Tyrese Maxey, De'Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
The Bucks had all players available.
Adrian Griffin started Damian Lillard, Malik Beasley, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Brook Lopez.
Embiid is a notorious slow-starter when a new season begins, and he certainly did not put his signature on the first half of this game. But, I was impressed by his decision-making against pressure in the first quarter. Not only is he prone to forcing shots, but he's also a prime candidate for a bunch of unforced turnovers.
Having only played one preseason game, and it being followed by a six-day layoff before Thursday's season-opener, you would expect a turnover-laden game from Embiid. But, the big fella was actually quite stable against pressure in the first half.
The Bucks tried to goad him into unforced errors, sending a second defender to add pressure when Embiid put the ball on the floor. He responded appropriately in the first half, stringing the double-teamer out and finding the open man on the perimeter with a four-on-three advantage on the rest of the floor if they acted quickly.
For someone who missed most of preseason, it was quite an active defensive game for the reigning MVP, too. Philadelphia used him in various coverages, trying to blow up the Lillard-Antetokounmpo pick-and-roll by using Embiid as a helper at one point and having him play at the level of the screen at another point.
It certainly wasn't his best night shooting the ball, requiring 21 shots to register 24 points. But, Embiid also missed five free throws. Even though the rest of his game was quite ugly (more on that later), it was a reminder of just how mindlessly Embiid can flirt with a 30-point night.
The Bucks aren't exactly a great matchup for Maxey once he gets inside, even if he can pick on Lillard's defensive shortcomings on the perimeter. But, the young guard tasked with primary ball-handling duties in Harden's absence largely looked unaffected by the challenge. More of the difficult layups will fall when he doesn't have to angle them over the outstretched arms of Antetokounmpo or Lopez. The big story for Maxey was his shooting and passing. He drew on the lessons imparted by Harden, drilling a step-back triple over Lillard in the first half. Maxey then laced a pair of deep ones in the second half, one in transition to cut the deficit to two points late in the third quarter and another to punish an Embiid double-team late in the fourth quarter.
He's going to pile up the assist numbers in the regular season because he can make all the basic reads. He was unphased in this game, tossing the ball to Embiid in the pick-and-pop, finding teammates for threes in transition, hitting white jerseys coming off screens, and looking back to the big man in trailing position on the perimeter. But, those basic reads don't make him a point guard. He didn't create shots in this game, and that's what needs to come next.
I've basically shouted how high I am on the Kelly Oubre Jr. signing from the highest point of the Comcast Tower ever since he inked a deal with the Sixers. It's great value at the veteran minimum, and his debut did not disappoint. Oubre's three-point shot showed up in a big way on Thursday, no. 9 lacing five of six attempts from beyond the arc. History says that will come and go from night to night, but he stepped up in a marquee matchup.
Oubre's shotmaking wasn't limited to the perimeter. He knifed his way inside on a number of occasions, slithering to the rim for a couple of crafty finishes. Oubre also got favorable positioning in the post, making himself available inside for a pass and finishing through a foul on one possession.
It was refreshing to see a Sixers reserve navigate a screen with his off hand, creating even the slightest layer of unpredictability. You're going to have nights in which Oubre's shot selection induces hair-pulling, especially when he continues to call his own number despite nothing falling. But, it's the nights like Thursday - 27 points in more than 32 minutes off the bench - that will force you to forgive the feast-or-famine style of Oubre's play.
His athleticism will help him make shots inside that former Sixers reserves simply didn't have the skill or intangibles to make. But, it's his goldfish memory of the last play that make him such a dynamite weapon for Philadelphia. He's the most dynamic bench player the Sixers have had since perhaps Lou Williams. And I would venture to say he makes up for all the bench pieces the Sixers lost this offseason by himself.
One of the hiccups of getting adjusted to Nurse's fast-paced style on offense is the occasional possession in which Harris pulls up for a free-throw-line jumper in transition. That sound you hear is someone in the analytics department throwing a computer monitor at a wall.
The story that is going to make the rounds in the aftermath of this game is the officiating crew missing this blatantly obvious travel on Antetokounmpo:
But, to be clear, Embiid doesn't get the fortune of that being the pardon. Not after winning MVP. He was horrible with the ball in his hands in the second half, committing five turnovers in 19 minutes after intermission.
I would classify two of them as questionable, the officials whistling Embiid for an offensive foul on one and the big fella charged with a bad pass that I thought was salvageable on another. But, there was one rooted in miscommunication with teammates as they all try to gel in Nurse's system. Two others occurred because Embiid lost focus with the ball.
In other words, they were inexcusable errors. The last turnover occurred in a sequence that saw Embiid vomit a pull-up jumper early in a possession. By the time the Sixers and Bucks reached crunch time, Embiid was simply gassed. You could see it clearly in his decision-making. And his poor execution erased an eight-point Sixers lead, giving Milwaukee control late in the fourth.
Whatever the descriptor is for Embiid's role in that, it's not MVP.
This late-game collapse begs the question - why was Embiid not available for three of the four preseason games?
As much as we have to point blame at Embiid, that does not mean this officiating crew didn't affect the game. The no-call in the clip above was absolutely disgraceful and unacceptable. Even worse was the explanation, provided by TNT's Chris Haynes. It was something to the effect of "we think the ball slipped in his hands, so therefore we do not deem it to be a shot". Here's the thing - the only way you can make that call with any level of certainty is if you ask Antetokounmpo if the ball slipped. Something tells me that answer would be pretty biased.
The officiating would not have mattered if the Sixers made more than 19 of their 28 free throw attempts. Embiid missed five of his eight. Quite significant in a one-point loss.
The Sixers will head to Toronto to visit the Raptors (1-0) on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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