3 observations after Sixers can’t capitalize on strong first half, lose to Bucks

3 observations after Sixers can’t capitalize on strong first half, lose to Bucks originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers played a stellar first half Thursday night but couldn’t manage a bounce-back win at Fiserv Forum.

They suffered a 114-105 loss to the Bucks.

Tyrese Maxey posted 30 points, four assists and four rebounds.

Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded 32 points on 9-for-12 shooting, 11 boards and seven assists. Damian Lillard added 17 points and nine assists.

Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine bone stress) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise) were out for the 36-30 Sixers.

The 43-24 Bucks were down Khris Middleton, Malik Beasley and MarJon Beauchamp.

Thursday’s defeat was the Sixers’ fifth in their last six games. They dropped all three games of their regular-season series with the Bucks.

The Sixers will play the Hornets on Saturday night in Philadelphia. Here are observations on their loss to Milwaukee:

Harris better, though clearly not good enough

Coming off a terrible two-point night Tuesday in the Sixers’ loss to the Knicks, Tobias Harris missed an early three-pointer and was the last Sixers starter to score.

He did tally a couple of assists in his opening stint, including a nice dish to set up a cutting Kyle Lowry for a layup.

The Sixers initially seemed more focused on involving Harris in their half-court offense. With the Bucks blitzing Maxey late in the first quarter, the Sixers went to the Maxey-Harris pick-and-roll a few plays in a row. The idea was solid — get Harris the ball in a 4-on-3 situation against an off-balance defense — but the Sixers kept coming up empty. Bobby Portis poked the ball away from Maxey, leading to a Pat Connaughton fast-break layup. Harris couldn’t hit a contested top-of-the-key three.

Defensively, Harris began the game on Antetokounmpo. KJ Martin was up next. The Sixers were generally diligent about sending help whenever Antetokounmpo drove downhill or handled the ball in transition. Paul Reed was especially active and agile as a help defender in the first half, setting a great tone for the Sixers’ second unit.

Antetokounmpo committed four of the Bucks’ 10 first-half turnovers, and the Sixers used that disruptive defense to fuel some free-flowing offense.

With the Sixers’ subs rolling, Harris didn’t play in the second quarter until the 3:49 mark. Harris’ only three points in the first half came on free throws.

Maxey maturely found Harris for a wide-open three early in the third quarter, which he knocked down. That shot didn’t immediately snap Harris out of his funk, though. He wasn’t able to create good looks for himself in the post or in isolation and had several indecisive, tentative moments.

On a positive note, Harris got a number of tricky shots to fall in the fourth quarter (more on that below). He went down at the 2:06 mark of the fourth after appearing to roll his right ankle but remained in the game.

The veteran forward finished the evening with 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting, four rebounds and three assists. Everyone knows the Sixers need more.

Maxey passes Embiid, Sixers’ shooting back on track 

Maxey began the night by drilling a three against former teammate Patrick Beverley.

He then sunk another, putting the Sixers up 6-0 and drawing even with Embiid for sixth on the Sixers’ all-time made threes list.

Milwaukee replied with an 11-0 run capped by an Antetokounmpo drive, spin move and fierce slam on Harris. The Bucks started hot, making their first five field goals, but eventually cooled off.

After going just 26 percent from long distance across their past three games, the Sixers were due for a much-improved shooting performance. Buddy Hield made back-to-back threes late in the first quarter and the Sixers closed the period with a 10-0 spurt.

Cameron Payne had shot 5 for 22 from the floor in the Sixers’ mini-series split at Madison Square Garden. He was locked in against the team that traded him to the Sixers last month, making his first three triples Thursday and lifting the Sixers to a 48-36 lead.

Maxey moved past Embiid with two more threes during the final minute of the second quarter. The Sixers shot 11 for 19 from three-point range in the first half and held an eight-point advantage at the break.

Subpar start to fourth dooms Sixers  

Maxey stepped in to take a charge on Antetokounmpo early in the third quarter. Lowry then drove baseline on the next possession and drew the two-time MVP’s third personal foul. Antetokounmpo received a technical for disputing the call.

Bucks head coach Doc Rivers kept Antetokounmpo in and Milwaukee gradually ate into the Sixers’ lead. Maxey saw two jumpers go around the rim in and out, and a Beverley three put the Bucks up 73-72.

Maxey spearheaded a strong Sixers response, converting a runner, leaner and driving layup. Nicolas Batum chipped in a corner three, Reed nabbed two steals, and Martin added a fast-break hoop.

Crucially, Milwaukee was the better team at the start of the fourth quarter with both Maxey and Antetokounmpo sitting.

The Bucks regained the lead on a Portis lay-in. Hield committed a bad foul behind the arc on sharpshooter AJ Green, who scored 14 points off the bench. Green hit a long-range jumper less than a minute later, too. The Sixers trailed by six points when Antetokounmpo checked back in and looked well on their way to defeat when the Greek Freak buried a tough fadeaway jumper over Harris.

Improbably, Harris was the Sixers’ most effective offensive player down the stretch. He made the hardest shot he tried all night, draining a desperation three as the shot clock expired, and also canned two mid-range jumpers in the final six minutes.

However, the Sixers needed to be almost perfect late in the fourth quarter and were not. As they know well, those sorts of spots are much more challenging without their reigning MVP big man.