Five Questions From Sixers-Bucks
Was this the Embiid game or the Scott game?
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The Sixers got their best win of the season Sunday with a 130-125 win in Milwaukee over the Bucks -- or at least they would’ve, except remember it doesn’t really count because Malcolm Brogdon didn’t play in it, and anyway they probably won despite of Brett Brown not because of him and it’s all meaningless until they beat Boston anyway.
Lots of things to discuss after this one, and because I want to talk about everything related to this game forever, here are the five biggest questions I still have the next day.
1. Was this the Joel Embiid Game or the Mike Scott Game?
Joel Embiid did just about everything he possibly could to put his thumbprint on this one. He ended the game with 40 points on 15-31 shooting, to go with 15 rebounds, six assists, three steals and a block -- and just one turnover, his first game without multiple TOs since late November. He also stonewalled the otherwise-unstoppable Giannis Antetokounmpo on several drives early, and hit very arguably the biggest shot of his career late, an absolute dagger three with a half-minute to go to put the Sixers up seven. It was a signature performance, one for the all-career highlight reel, and everything you would need to know about Embiid’s all-consuming dominance if you’d never witnessed it previously.
And yet, when we talk about this game in a couple weeks, months, or years, I suspect there’s a pretty good chance we’ll still refer to it as the Mike Scott game.
By comparison, and really any objective measure Scott had a pretty forgettable night in the box score: six points on 2-8 shooting, with seven rebounds, an assist and two turnovers. The two shots he hit were threes, and he somehow ended up a team-high +15 on the afternoon, but it wasn’t the most memorable night on the court for our neck-tattooed fav.
What happened a couple feet off the court, however, will ensure Mike Scott both Process and Twitter immortality, if he hadn’t sewed that up already. You’ve seen the clip a hundred times by now already, probably, and you’ll be undoubtedly up to 102 by the end of this paragraph: Scott saved a loose ball by hurtling into the stands, ended up in a couple Bucks fans’ laps, then took a sip of one of those fans’ beers before re-entering the (still ongoing) play. As the man once said, outdueling the likely MVP to beat the conference’s best team in their home building is pretty good, but Mike Scott Drinks a Beer Mid-Play had Mike Scott drinking a beer mid-play.
If there’s anything that might save this as the Joel Embiid Game, it’s that we already had one very clear-cut Mike Scott Game this season: when he hit six threes, several in the fourth quarter, against the Golden State Warriors, and then also essentially secured the L by fouling the Warriors down three with plenty of time to go. That was the full range of the Mike Scott Experience (as well as the natural successor to the Isaiah Canaan Game) in such a way that it may never be properly supplanted, even by him having Doing Milwaukee Right better than anyone since Wayne and Garth recreated the Laverne and Shirley credits. Time and Process Lore will tell.
2. Do the Sixers have anyone besides Embiid that can guard Giannis without being humiliated?
“Let Giannis get his and keep the rest of the team from beating you” sounds like a pretty sound-enough strategy on paper against the Bucks, and a win on the road suggests it was well-implemented. But Giannis did also go off for 52 points on 15-26 shooting, getting to the line at will (19-21 FT), and also racking up 16 boards and seven dimes (with just a single turnover) for his troubles. According to Basketball-Reference, it was one of just two performances with an official Game Score of over 50 this season. Letting Giannis get his to that extent should we see the Bucks in the playoffs seems, um, risky, to say the least.
But what options do the Sixers have, exactly? Embiid was decent on him when he drew the assignment, but the Sixers’ traditional lineup staggering means they won’t always be on the court at the same time, and 37 minutes of guarding JoJo guarding Giannis is a sure path to quick foul trouble for our most indispensible two-way player. And beyond Embiid? Ben Simmons got badly outmuscled by Antetokounmpo (though Simba got his revenge), and one Eurostep and he’s in another continent from Boban. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris don’t stand a chance of hanging physically, and don’t even bother mentioning Amir Johnson.
Jonah Bolden? Justin Patton? Maybe worth a shot for a change-of-pace -- or just a couple spare fouls to give at the very least -- but really, for now, it’s Embiid, double-team, or let Giannis eat. I think given how troublesome the Bucks become once they start rolling from beyond and given Giannis’ ever-growing LeBron-like instinct for spotting the open man when doubled on drives, it’s basically between the first two options for Philly at the moment. Figuring out a better Option Three should probably be a top priority for Sixers brass in between now and May.
3. Why does no one talk about what a fucking disaster the George Hill trade was?
Easy answer to this one, I suppose: When your team is an NBA-best 52-18 and has only lost consecutive games once this season, people don’t get so hung up on everything you’ve done wrong in the past 12 months. But Process Trusters never forget -- least of all with our own team, natch, and not with anyone else’s either -- and it’s worth remembering that Milwaukee’s early version of an All-In trade this season was to send a lottery-protected 2021 first rounder and some cap filler to Cleveland for a season of 32-year-old combo guard George Hill. His line last night: Two points on 1-2 shooting, two boards and an assist in 11 minutes.
And you know what? That was his most memorable performance for the Bucks in over a month! Here’s what his game log looks like since the All-Star break:
This is the kind of production Milwaukee gave up a first-rounder for -- one, by the way, that’s only top-10 protected in 2022 and top-8 protected in 2023. And as bad as this trade looks currently, it’s not like it looked that much better when it was made -- anybody who watched the Cavs in the playoffs (or the Kings very much not in the playoffs) last year could’ve told you that Hill was already cooked. Say what you will (and have) about the Tobias Harris trade, at least the Sixers definitively got something of concrete value back -- why Milwaukee viewed Hill as even a considerable upgrade on Matthew Dellavedova, shipped to Cleveland in that deal, remains something of a mystery.
Of course, the injury to Malcolm Brogdon does create an opportunity for Hill to get a little more inextricably in the mix, and maybe play himself back into a legitimate rotation spot on this squad. But if yesterday was an example of what it looks like when he rises to the occasion, I’d advise Bucks fans to keep their expectations reasonable. And trust, Sixers fans will figure out how to turn “YOU TRADED A LIGHTLY PROTECTED FIRST ROUND PICK FOR A WASHED UP GEORGE HILL” into a catchy free-throw-line chant come playoff time.
4. Should Joel Embiid be taking 13 threes in a big game?
Despite Embiid’s overall dominance in this game, his flirtatious activity behind the three-point line was a source of general consternation for many last night: Why is one of the most dominant post players of this NBA century taking nearly half his shots from beyond the arc, where his career percentage is in the very low 30s?
Reasonable question, but I believe the answer is still generally: Because he has to. The only bad thing that comes with him shooting a wide open three is that sometimes -- OK, often -- he’ll miss. But not taking the three chokes the Sixers’ spacing, results in a lot of unconvincing Embiid pump fakes and awkward Embiid drives that tend to result in a lot of turnovers and even-lower-percentage two-point jumpers, and generally has Philly playing into the opponents’ hands. In lineups when JoJo was the lone non-shooter, that could maybe be sustainable, but when he’s playing alongside Simmons (or McConnell or Butler on the nights when they deem anywhere beyond the arc to be a phantom zone) it’s really just not a tenable option.
Meanwhile, yes, there will be nights when Embiid shoots 4-13 from three -- maybe a couple where he goes 1-13 or 2-13 -- but there will also be nights where he hits four of his first six, and that unlocks absolutely everything for the Sixers offense. All of a sudden defenders are lunging at him, and he’s swinging the ball to a better open shooter, he’s Euro-stepping past a flying defender for an easy dunk, or he’s letting that flying defender crash into him for three free shots at the line. The good possibilities just outweigh the bad ones here. I’m with Spike: Fire away, big man.
(Related: Next time T.J. McConnell passes up a wide open three to go spazzing into the lane at the end of the shot clock, Brett Brown is going to punt him straight into the sun, and neither I nor anyone else will constrain him from doing so.)
5. Will this be the Jimmy Butler that shows up for the playoffs?
As great as Embiid’s performance was, and as scene-stealing as Scott’s turn was, it might be Jimmy Butler’s performance that sticks with me most from this one. It wasn’t a line that pops off the sports section -- 27 points on 8-16 FG, six boards, three dimes, three steals, two TOs -- but it was just exactly what the Sixers needed in this one. He fought his way to the basket and the line early, he took and hit a couple threes in the flow of the offense, and in the fourth quarter when things slowed down, he deposited a couple buckets in the half-court that the Sixers absolutely had to have to stave off a late Bucks run. The defense came and went a little, but at least on offense, Jimmy G. Buckets was in full effect.
I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that being able to depend on this Jimmy showing up nightly, or close to it, is the difference between the Sixers struggling to get out of the second round and the Sixers legitimately being the team to beat in the East. We can’t rely on the non-Embiid Sixers going 11-18 from three again -- or the non-Giannis Milwaukee starters going 7-28 -- but if Butler (and occasionally Harris) can give us the versatile and potent offensive threat to provide a third option between relying on Embiid in the post and firing away from beyond, this team is gonna be tough to stop even on an off night.
In any event, we’ll find out a lot more about this team on Wednesday at home against the Celtics. I’ve said it before, but don’t send anyone to Charlotte -- not Embiid, not Simmons, not Butler, not Brett, not Zoo and Alaa, not our equipment manager or team bus driver or even our best practice balls. Hell, just send the Blue Coats and hope no one notices. Survive the Charlotte game, bank a W against Boston, and we can spend the rest of the season drawing fake real estate listings for Andre Drummond’s headspace to be used in our cakewalk first-round playoff series against Detroit.