Bucked: Sixers Eliminated by Milwaukee and Giannis' 47 in Hard-Fought Game Six
The Sixers exit the playoffs in the second round for the third straight time.
Andrew Unterberger is a famous writer who invented the nickname 'Sauce Castillo' and is now writing for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez, as part of the 'If Not, Pick Will Convey As Two Second-Rounders' section of the site. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AUGetoffmygold and can also read him at Billboard.
Andrew's writing is brought to you by Kinetic Skateboarding! Not only the Ricky's approved skate shop, but the best place to get Chucks, Vans, any apparel. Use code "DAVESILVER" for 9.1% off your order.
NBA Playoffs Round Two: Bucks Defeat Sixers, 4-2
As the final seconds ticked away on the Sixers season, with the team down 112-107 and not bothering to foul as the Bucks dribbled out the clock's remainder, my primary thought was: I'm glad the end came at home. Strange thought, I know -- gratitude for a playoff elimination on your own floor. But after all we'd been through with this Sixers team this season and postseason, for it to end with yet another road loss just would've felt cheap, and impersonal. We deserved to be able to look this team in the eye and let them know how we felt about their performance, one way or the other, as they walked off the floor for the last time.
And how did we feel about them? Well, based on what I'd consider to be a pretty loud round of cheers -- from a fanbase that has proven time and again that they will never applaud out of sheer habit or formality -- I think was pretty telling about how the city had come to view this team, even in what turned out to be ultimate defeat. There were some boos mixed in, of course, but not anywhere near even a You're Not Beating Charlotte by Nearly Enough decibel level. Mostly, it was approval for a team who'd legitimately given their all, and simply come up short in the face of transcendent greatness.
So yeah, let's get that guy out of the way at this point, I guess. I dunno if the Sixers were quite at MJ "That was God disguised as Giannis Antetokounmpo" territory with the reigning MVP's performance yesterday afternoon, but no one could deny that the team fell victim to one of the great closeout performances in modern NBA history. Given the stakes of the moment and what it meant for his career, it was maybe the finest individual Eastern Conference playoff performance since LeBron's classic Game Six against Boston in 2012.
The best the Sixers could say about their defensive effort was that they definitely made Giannis work for his points. He took 36 shots, by a considerable distance the highest number of his playoff career, and he only got to the line 10 times, which for Antetokounmpo in these playoffs is basically a Tobias Harris-like clip. And while he'd been able to get his teammates involved for most of the series, the Sixers mostly made him a one-man show tonight, as he ended with just four assists, and as many turnovers. The strategy against Giannis was clear: Don't foul him, don't double-team him, keep him in front of you, force him at all costs to beat you with the jumper. And last night, that's what he did: 18-36 from the field, 3-6 from downtown, and every big bucket the Bucks needed down the stretch on the way to 17 for the quarter -- and 47 on the night, a number that should haunt the Sixers for the long offseason.
Yet despite Giannis' historic performance -- and despite coming off a brutal Game Five loss that would've permanently knocked the wind out of a lot of lesser teams -- the Sixers fought to the very end in this one, led by their two stars. Joel Embiid, phenomenal all series, had another performance of all-around brilliance, with 33 points on efficient 11-21 shooting, 15 rebounds, four assists to just two turnovers and... well, you couldn't exactly call it a lockdown defensive effort on a guy who had 47, but he executed the gameplan on Giannis, made him a shooter and didn't give him anything easy or cheap. I'm sure the TNT guys would yell at Embiid for not punching the reigning MVP in the throat sometime in the third quarter, but generally speaking, the 47 wasn't for a lack of effort or execution on Jo's part.
And on the other end, Ben Simmons gave Giannis a little taste of his own φάρμακο early and often. He straight-up went through Antetokounmpo for a slam and a reverse layup on consecutive possessions in the first quarter, as aggressively attacking as we've seen Ben in the postseason -- also getting Embiid and the Sixers' shooters involved once Milwaukee's defense started honing in on him. Eventually, the Bucks started playing off him on the perimeter with even more cartoonish disrespect than we were giving Giannis, and to his credit, Ben responded in turn. Not quite as successfully, natch, but he was 3-7 on jumpers by my count, including 1-3 on pull-up threes (the "1" eliciting the not-WFC's loudest roar of the day), on his way to a series-high 30-point performance. And his defense on Khris Middleton remained marvelous, helping limit the Bucks' second All-Star to 18 on the night, forcing their one superstar to really do it all himself.
We discuss the legal age you should have to be to be held accountable for your takes, and an age limit, Brett Brown watching Ben Simmons throw up from back pain, Mike has to play JJ Redick Poetry or Nephew Kyle Rap, the potential coming over of Vasilije Micic, Sixers Adam's list of the Top 20 Foods in existence.
In the end, it was the Sixers' secondary stars that failed them. Al Horford proved particularly ineffective on Giannis during his runs in the first half and third quarter, and was off on his pick-and-pop jumper for the second straight game, ending a combined 2-11 from three in the Sixers' final two series losses. (He didn't even see the court in the fourth quarter, with Embiid playing all 12 minutes.) Josh Richardson played tough defense on Eric Bledsoe and Game Five hero George Hill, keeping their scoring in check all night, but failed to assert himself in the offense, ending with a series-low eight points on the night. And playing at home for the first time since his best game of the playoffs, Tobias was again productive early, but missed a couple potential momentum-swinging threes in the second half and seemed to lose his confidence from there, passing up scoring looks late when the Sixers desperately could've used him.
One possession down in the stretch seemed particularly representative of the Sixers' half-court issues all season. With 45 seconds left, the Sixers down two and the Bucks starting to double Embiid in the post late, Jo found a mostly open Tobias on the weak-side wing, and in the Bucks' defensive scramble to meet him, he ended with George Hill on him 16 feet from the basket. It was the perfect opportunity for Tobi to back Hill down and try to either power through him for a layup, shoot over him, or at least force a whistle. But instead, he backed him down for a few dribbles, pulled back, and pump-faked for some reason -- which Hill unsurprisingly failed to bite on -- then passed back to the perimeter. The ball ended up in a desperation Simmons heave from deep that not even a not-WFC crowd yelling at Ben to shoot from three all season could delight in. The Bucks got the ball with 30 seconds to go, and one questionable Simmons foul call and two Giannis free throws later, the game was basically over.
"Regrets? No, Adam, I can't say that I have any regrets about the way our guys played today -- particularly after getting their hearts ripped out in Milwaukee," Brett said to the press after the game. "I mean, are there a couple possessions I wish we could get a do-over on? Sure. If I knew that Giannis Antetokounmpo was going to look like Larry Bird down the stretch as a shooter, would I have maybe sent an extra guy or four after him and forced anyone else to beat us? Maybe, I guess. But look, we went with the strategy that we thought gave us the best chance of beating a really great, really dangerous Milwaukee team, and we still came pretty close. Our guys played their hearts out -- Jo and Ben in particular both really put the franchise on their back, like the couple of young stars and leaders they are. I'm sad I couldn't do more to get those guys over the hump in these playoffs, but I think they showed why their future is as bright as anyone's in the East."
If parts of that Brett quote sound like a man whose made peace with his fate, well. I don't think it's a particularly bold statement to say that there will likely be consequences for this team falling in the second round for the third straight year -- this time to the team they were supposedly built to beat. And while you could certainly make convincing arguments that the guys in the front office and the dudes they handed their biggest contracts to that summer are more to blame than anyone on the bench, the latter is probably the likeliest to go at this point. Brett's occasionally loopy behavior the last few months, dating back to the end of the regular season, has long suggested a man who knew this was his final season, and that maybe he'd had enough of all the drama himself anyway. I still like Brett, and while I'd still like to keep him and don't blame him for this series loss -- though I might've started doubling Giannis sometime in Game Five -- releasing him might almost be a kindness at this point.
The changes might not stop there. Horford's end-of-season hot streak and sporadic effectiveness throughout the playoffs proved that he can still be a contributor to a good team, but his inability to provide much Giannis deterrence and the late-series disappearance of his shooting also demonstrated why he can't totally be relied on as one anymore, at least not by this team. Tobias and J-Rich both had ultimately solid playoff runs -- and one signature performance each -- but also showed why neither can really be trusted either as offensive creators or knockdown shooters in the team's tightest half-court moments. If it wasn't abundantly clear (and it was) before these playoffs that this starting five simply wasn't built the right way around its two stars, it certainly is now.
There are a lot of questions to be asked about this Sixers team, for sure, but at least the biggest one has now been answered: Can Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons be great (and healthy) together in the playoffs? And if you're looking for silver linings from a third straight second-round exit, the biggest one -- even considering Shake Milton and Matisse Thybulle holding their own in their first taste of playoff ball -- is undoubtedly Embiid and Simmons giving that Q an Usher feat. Lil Jon and Ludacris-sized answer in the affirmative.
Even in defeat, this was pretty obviously the best playoff series of Embiid's still-young NBA career. Averaging 31.7 points and 12.5 rebounds, shooting comfortably over 50% for the series, more assists than turnovers... he wasn't quite the one-on-one defensive force we maybe hoped he'd be, though who knows if Bill Russell himself would've been able to hold Giannis Antetokounmpo to under 30 a game in this series. Most importantly, JoJo got through all 13 games of these playoffs (while playing 38 minutes a night) without so much as a stubbed toe or a head rush, as far as we know; even with all the talking points across two series, his health was never one of them. Giannis was obviously still the series MVP, but I don't think anyone outside of him -- and maybe our old quadruple-doinking friend out in L.A., who just dispatched the Rockets in a gentleman's sweep -- has been better than Joel in these playoffs.
And honestly, what we saw from Ben might be even more encouraging. Obviously his playoffs got off to a rocky start with that two-game maybe-holdout -- more details hopefully to come about what actually went on there -- and there were still a couple games where it seemed like he wasn't 100% locked in. But in the most pivotal games against both Miami and Milwaukee, he was pedal-to-the-hardwood, as remorseless and indomitable as we know he can be. His back looks good, and for the most part, so does his jumper -- and even more heartening than his three makes from downtown in these playoffs were the nine attempts (ten if you count that beat-the-clock heave at in the final minute yesterday), and the fact that he took what the defense gave him and rose to the challenge. Undoubtedly there will still be folks trying to trade him for Devonte' Graham in the offseason, but they're running out of even semi-credible arguments as to why.
So how to feel about the Sixers' playoff performance on the whole? Well, it's pretty inarguable that going into this season, we would've viewed a(NOTHER) second-round exit as a disappointment in any context -- and at the end of the day, a disappointment is indeed probably what this is. But it feels much different than the Celtics loss, and even though it was in fewer games, it feels different than the Toronto loss too. As with Toronto, we were slayed by an all-time individual series performance, but unlike with Toronto, our best guys were nearly as good. And while both series losses hinged on back-breaking game-winners by the opposition, this one is the one that I feel stole something that was rightfully ours -- and if we win that game, I think we do win the series. (Also worth pointing out that even in a six-game loss, the Sixers still won the scoring differential for the series, 685-678.)
Does any of that positive stuff matter if the end result is another series loss? Maybe not -- maybe it just makes you the Cleveland Cavaliers saying "well if only they didn't have that Michael Jordan guy and he didn't hit that shot..." when there'll always be a Michael Jordan around to hit that shot. We'll see where the Bucks go from here, but we certainly can't count on Giannis being out of the East anytime soon -- and in the meantime, we'll have a rising Celtics team (who also just finished the Raptors off in six) and a Nets team getting back Kevin Durant next season to deal with, too. You never know, but one of the reasons why win-now was a sort of necessary mentality for this team to have this season is because it seemed likely this season was the best shot they'd have at getting out of the East, if not winning the whole damn thing.
Still, it's also worth reminding ourselves -- again -- that Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are still 26 and 23, respectively, and have only been together for three seasons. Giannis is just 25, younger even than Joel, but he's also in his seventh year, has never missed more than ten games in a season, and plays for a franchise that recognizes his singular gifts and has consistently (and increasingly) built a team around him to maximize those talents. It's unclear that the Sixers have the people in place to do that for Ben and Joel -- they certainly didn't do it this season -- but getting Jo and Ben to the end of a playoffs together, healthy, and productive was a critical step in their mutual development as the twin pillars of this franchise. Whatever changes need to be made around them, staff or player personnel-wise, it's pretty clear that they're no longer part of the problem for the Philadelphia 76ers.
And as much as it hurts to be eliminated this early, damn if this playoff run didn't give us some fun memories to take with us, along with the traumatic ones. The J-Rich Revenge Game. The Furkan Korkmaz Shrug. Embiid's 42 to outduel Giannis. Simmons' first three-point attempts in Miami, and then his first make in front of a roaring home crowd, for the "BANG!" to end all Mike Breen "BANG!"s. The "BULL-IES! BULL-IES!" beatdown in Game Four against Milwaukee. Shutting Jimmy Butler up for all-time with a blowout Game Seven victory, to send him back to a long hot Miami summer of so-early-it's-late gym workouts. It's been a blast for me to cover, and it's pleasantly surprising (but not shocking) to me that the not-WFC faithful seemed to feel similarly grateful at the end of it yesterday.
"We heard it, and we definitely appreciated it," said an emotional-but-composed Joel Embiid of the crowd's end-of-game ovation in his media availability. "It's been an up-and-down season for us with the fans -- winning so much at home and then losing so much on the road. I think we got booed more times this season then we did my first two years here when we never won a game. But to know that they're still with us after all this, even though we fell short this year of our goal of winning a championship -- that lets us know what it's all about, really. It gives us the motivation we need to come back next year even better and stronger and finally get the fucking job done."
Getting the fucking job done -- don't know about you, but that seems worth tuning in next season for to me. There's no thought about running it back this time: some of the cast and crew will almost certainly need to be different. But this wasn't the Last Dance: Our stars will be back, and tighter, hungrier, and bully-er than ever. Until then, give yourselves a hand for getting to the end of this most faith-testing of seasons, and Trust the Process, now and forever.