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Sixers Observations: Joel Embiid Scratched Late, Sixers Blown Out by Bucks

3 observations after Sixers can't overcome late scratches in blowout loss originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Most of Saturday’s Sixers drama took place before their game against the Bucks.

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Joel Embiid, initially listed as a starter, was a late scratch with right shoulder soreness. Furkan Korkmaz (right ankle sprain) was also ruled out shortly before tip-off. Ben Simmons missed his fourth consecutive game due to an illness, and Paul Reed (health and safety protocols) was sidelined, too.

None of that news put the Sixers in a great position to snap a three-game losing streak. They didn’t, falling 132-94 to the Bucks at Fiserv Forum and dropping to 39-21 on the season. 

Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in just 24 minutes.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said before the game that he’s spoken to Simmons recently and the 24-year-old is “not great, but a lot better.” Rivers had “no idea” whether Simmons would be able to play Monday when the Sixers face the Thunder at Wells Fargo Center. 

Here are three observations on the Sixers’ blowout loss in Milwaukee: 

Offensive woes abound 

The last time before Saturday the Sixers were missing both Simmons and Embiid, Shake Milton and Tobias Harris combined for 57 points in a win over the Kings on March 20. 

That didn’t come close to happening Saturday, in part because the Sixers struggled to make any jump shots at the beginning of the game. They misfired on 14 of their first 16 field goals and 17 of their first 19 three-point attempts. 

For the Sixers to beat the Bucks, Harris would’ve needed to have an efficient, high-scoring outing. In his second game back after a three-game absence due to a right knee injury, he couldn’t check either of those boxes, recording nine points on 4-for-10 shooting. 

He’s adept at scoring in the pick-and-roll and mid-post, but his life becomes much harder when the opposition doesn’t need to be very concerned about his teammates. A core aspect of the Sixers’ success this season has been the play of their “Big 3.” When Harris, Simmons and Embiid share the floor, the Sixers have had a plus-15.5 net rating and 120.6 offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass

Milton did solid work off of ball screens in the second quarter, knocking down mid-range jumpers and providing a chunk of the perimeter offense the Sixers required. Seth Curry’s jumpers started falling during a Sixers run early in the third period. That duo totaled 28 points.

However, the Sixers rarely put the Bucks’ defense under serious pressure. The team shot 37.8 percent from the floor, dished out 15 assists and committed 17 turnovers. 

Not much wrong with the first-half defense

The Sixers started out playing a 2-3 zone, a common-sense move from Rivers without Simmons and Embiid.

Those are the two Sixers with the best shot at somewhat neutralizing Antetokounmpo. When the two-time MVP sat, the Sixers switched to man-to-man defense, mixing up their defensive looks for the remainder of the game. 

Veteran Anthony Tolliver looked badly overmatched on a play in the second quarter when the Bucks got Antetokounmpo the ball at the elbow, a spot where the Sixers evidently did not think it advisable to send a double team. Overall, though, the Sixers’ second unit did surprisingly well defensively in the opening half. Unlike Thursday night, defense was not the team’s primary problem early on. 

Even outside of Matisse Thybulle, a zone defense whiz in college, the Sixers have the personnel to be a good zone team — length, versatility, skilled at forcing turnovers. It’s been an effective defense for them on occasion, most notably when it spurred a comeback win over the Pacers on Jan. 31.

A highly optimistic perspective on this game would be that the zone practice was a positive, along with the general first-half defensive grit in a tough situation. When the Bucks hit their top gear in the third quarter, though, it was apparent the Sixers had no chance.

Plenty of reasons to be frustrated 

Dwight Howard, Rivers and Harris were all called for technical fouls in the first half. 

As The Athletic’s Derek Bodner noted, Howard has 15 technicals on the season and is one away from earning a one-game suspension.

Saturday’s game must have been an irritating one to play in. The Sixers’ defensive processes in the first half were sound, but the team squandered any potential window to seize an unlikely lead. The wayward jumpers, injuries and losing streak all must have contributed to the technicals, in addition to disagreement about the officiating itself. 

The health of Simmons and Embiid is what matters most for the Sixers at the moment, but maintaining confidence and composure will be important, too. With 12 games left, the Sixers trail the first-place Nets by a game but have the NBA’s easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon

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