The Sixers nearly notched a thrilling comeback victory in their first game of the 2023-24 season.
Damian Lillard and the Bucks didn’t let it happen.
Led by Lillard (39 points) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (23 points), the Bucks regained their footing late in the fourth quarter Thursday night and took a 118-117 win at Fiserv Forum.
Tyrese Maxey had 31 points.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that the NBA is investigating whether the Sixers and Harden “are in violation of the league’s new player participation policy,” which aims to decrease star players’ absences in nationally televised games. Harden’s trade request and the subsequent fallout have been very well-publicized. He’d been away from the Sixers since Oct. 15 because of a personal matter, according to a team official, and then returned to practice Wednesday.
The Sixers thought it would be best for Harden to work at their training complex in Camden, New Jersey instead of joining them on the road. After facing the Raptors on Saturday night in Toronto, the team will have its home opener Sunday vs. the Trail Blazers.
“He’s been gone for 10 days, so we are in ramp-up phase again,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said Wednesday. “Like we would normally do, he will stay here and get on-court work with our staff and with our players from the Blue Coats and our two-way guys. … Try to get him ramped up as soon as we can.”
Here are observations on the Sixers’ narrow, Harden-less opening-night loss:
Embiid, Sixers not their sharpest to start
De’Anthony Melton started in Harden’s place. He guarded Lillard in the seven-time All-Star’s Milwaukee debut. PJ Tucker expectedly retained his starting spot and drew two-time MVP Antetokounmpo.
The Sixers’ emphasis on improved transition play was evident in the opening stages. Melton fed Embiid for a dunk on the secondary break. The Sixers did a decent job hustling back defensively, limiting the Bucks’ chances to attack early in the shot clock.
Milwaukee surged to a double-digit lead, though. The Sixers had a cold shooting start, beginning 2 for 9 from the field and 0 for 4 from three-point range. Some of the rust Embiid exhibited in the Sixers’ preseason finale was still apparent, too. Embiid regularly trailed the Sixers’ high-tempo possessions and missed 3 of his first 4 foul shots. A Brook Lopez three gave the Bucks a 15-7 edge and prompted Nurse’s first timeout.
Embiid played the entire first quarter and certainly did not appear fresh over the final few minutes. The Sixers’ ability to prevent the game from spiraling out of control was a silver lining. Oubre provided a much-needed scoring pop off the bench, posting 10 first-period points on 3-for-3 shooting, including a corner triple and a shot clock-beating, long-range wing jumper. Excellent work overall in his Sixers debut by Oubre, who signed a minimum-salary contract late this offseason.
“I’m starving,” Oubre said Wednesday when asked about the Sixers’ hunger as a team. “I ain’t going to say too much about that. I think a lot of people will see that.”
Nurse’s opening-night experiments
Maxey’s aggression to begin the second quarter was another positive.
Maxey drove hard, invited contact, and didn’t think twice about looking to score. His step-back three on Lillard cut Milwaukee’s lead to 32-30.
Nurse is generally inclined to experiment, but Tucker’s third foul with 8:55 left in the second period forced him to tweak whatever his initial plans were for the Sixers’ rotation. Jaden Springer was the last of five Sixers to check in off the bench. Neither Danuel House Jr. nor Furkan Korkmaz played.
Springer had two big-time blocks, tipping a Khris Middleton three-point try and sprinting back to get two hands on a fast-break Lillard layup. However, the Sixers’ size disadvantage was pronounced with Embiid out and Springer, Patrick Beverley and Maxey all on the floor. After a put-back Bobby Portis lay-in, Milwaukee had five offensive rebounds to the Sixers’ zero. It’s fine to cede size at times, but we imagine Nurse will be slightly more wary about using similar lineups moving forward.
Lillard soon got Springer back. He savvily used the 21-year-old’s ball pressure against him, rising before Springer could fully get his hands out of danger and converting a four-point play. That shot seemed to ignite Lillard, who burned the Sixers’ pick-and-roll defense and raced to 21 first-half points. He hit two free throws to stretch Milwaukee’s lead to 19 points.
The Sixers again pushed back; Melton made a three to cap a 10-0 run late in the second quarter. Embiid got rolling early in the third and Tobias Harris (20 points on 8-for-9 shooting) scored inside to trim the Sixers’ deficit to 71-69.
Still, that Lilllard-led burst by the Bucks highlighted why Nurse has been so focused on fundamental areas like transition defense, physical efforts on the glass, and persistent communication. With no Harden to create offense when Embiid’s on the bench and Maxey adapting to a lead ball handling role, the Sixers can’t afford many lapses against top-tier opponents like the Bucks.
As for Nurse, he’s got a tricky balance of aiming to establish bread-and-butter elements — proper spacing around Embiid post-ups, for instance — while pushing the occasional unexpected button to help the Sixers win early-season games.
Maxey shines in Sixers’ runs, but Bucks eke out win
The Sixers’ offense had promising flashes of motion — a clever backdoor cut on an after-timeout play; a nice dribble weave to create a downhill driving window — but Embiid did not pass very well.
The reigning MVP repeatedly talked this preseason about his desire to improve as a playmaker and make his teammates better. On opening night, he had six assists and seven turnovers. The Bucks routinely dug down hard, so the right play was to quickly dish the ball back out to the entry passer. Embiid failed to find Maxey on one of those sequences in the second quarter and the ball rolled into the backcourt instead. He committed a couple of ill-timed giveaways in the third period when the Bucks swarmed and rushed him.
In contrast, Maxey’s decision-making was strong in a eight-assist, zero-turnover performance. While some attack-minded giveaways from Maxey will be perfectly fine, the 22-year-old’s habitually low-turnover style feels especially valuable when the Sixers are on a run. He almost never kills momentum with anything risky.
The Sixers had a tremendous spurt in the fourth quarter, going on a 14-0 run that featured Oubre on both ends. Maxey punctuated it with two foul shots that grew the Sixers’ lead to 102-94.
Immediately, the Bucks responded with a 19-2 run. Lillard scored several pivotal buckets on Oubre and Embiid couldn’t stem the tide in time, misfiring on jumpers as Milwaukee’s lead expanded.
Embiid was scoreless between the 5:26 mark of the third quarter and 1:47 mark of the fourth. Hard to win when he’s off his game and Lillard is drilling signature clutch threes.
Though a Harris jumper cut the Sixers’ deficit to 116-114 with 30.5 seconds left, Lillard managed to drive into the middle on the Bucks’ next possession and draw a foul on Embiid. Even after a banked-in Melton three at the buzzer, the Sixers were a point shy of forcing overtime.
While they’re 0-1 with a matchup against Nurse’s former team on deck, the Sixers will surely win plenty of games this season if Maxey often plays like he did Thursday. And on most nights, they’ll expect better from their reigning MVP center down the stretch.