The Sixers suffered a heartbreaking loss to the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks that was sealed by a block by Giannis Antetokounmpo, which was improperly called a goaltend on the court. The missed call resulted in a jump ball rather than the Sixers’ possession with 1.6 seconds to play, which greatly hurt Philly’s chances of securing a win. This certainly left a sour taste in the Sixers’ collective mouth, there are far larger issues to address than just the disappointing results of one game.
The Sixers’ Non-Embiid Minutes
The beginning of the fourth quarter is often the make-or-break stretch for the Sixers. As Joel Embiid takes his scheduled rest before coming in to attempt to close off the game, it is up to the bench unit to hold on for dear life. There have been some signs of progress in Doc Rivers‘ rotational creativity, such as the resurgence of Shake Milton and the staggering of Embiid and Harden’s minutes, but the bottom line is Joel Embiid cannot be expected to play all 48 minutes.
In the matchup with the Bucks, Joel Embiid was subbed out with 2:22 remaining in the 3rd quarter and checked back in with 9:22 remaining in the fourth. The MVP candidate left the game with the Sixers leading 82-72, and the Sixers were able to maintain an 89-81 lead heading into the fourth. By the time Joel Embiid checked back into the game, it was no longer a comfortable lead as the Sixers held just a 93-91 advantage with the 9:22 remaining on the clock. It also is worth noting that James Harden was not on the court at the beginning of the fourth quarter and was subbed in with 6:46 left to play.
The biggest reason for this change in scoring is the impressive play of Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis ended the game with 40 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists. The Greek Freak shot an efficient 16-24 (66.7%) from the field and made use of his impressive length and efficiency.
The Bucks staggered the minutes of Giannis much differently than how the Sixers utilized Joel Embiid. Giannis was subbed out with 7:03 left in the 3rd quarter and was brought back with 5:12 to play and stayed in the game for the remainder of the third period. Giannis stayed on the floor to begin the fourth quarter and then checked out at the same time Joel Embiid came back in with 9:22 left to play. Antetokounmpo checked back in with 6:26 to play and drove the game home from there.
In the 6 game minutes that Giannis was on the court while Embiid was off, the Bucks went on a 19-11 run. Giannis had his way during this time scoring 15 of the Bucks’ 19 points. This period of time changed the game and served as the turning point for Milwaukee’s comeback victory.
Joel Embiid’s Comments
Never shy to speak his mind, Joel Embiid acknowledged this as the turning point following the game. In the postgame press conference, the Sixers superstar put it:
“I was on the bench the whole time. When I was on the floor, I really made sure that I was always there to help. I thought we didn’t follow up that strategy. We didn’t build a wall, and (Giannis) had a lot of free rein to just attack and get whatever he wanted, and that changed the game. Maybe next time we just match up the minutes.”— Joel Embiid
While Giannis is obviously a unique talent, the concept of Embiid’s minute management is one that applies on an every game basis. The non-Embiid minutes have been the Sixers’ Achilles heel for just about the entirety of his career and will continue to be a problem due to his game-changing ability and the inability to replace this. The impact of Giannis last night also exposes how weak the Sixers are on the defensive end outside of a few players.
While Matisse is an excellent defensive weapon, his limited offensive game and tendency to land in foul trouble do not suggest he is always a sustainable option. Tobias Harris and Georges Niang also struggled in the matchup with Giannis, which is unsurprising given the size and athleticism of both guys. Joel Embiid is at his best as a rim-protecting roamer, but there are certain matchups where the game plan must change, and a player of Giannis’ caliber absolutely calls for this.
After the loss last night, the Sixers fall to 4th place in the standings. They sit 1.5 games out of first place but still 2.5 games above the Bulls in 5th place. A playoff matchup with the Bucks likely wouldn’t take place until the conference semifinals or conference finals, given both teams are pretty certain to finish in the top four spots. The lesson from last night’s game applies to matchups beyond just the Bucks. While it was an extreme example, the lack of perimeter and big man defense and the Sixers’ difficulties to win the non-Embiid minutes continue to be the biggest concerns of this team.