Sixers: Good, bad, ugly from heartbreaking loss to Bucks

Joel Embiid, Sixers Bucks (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Joel Embiid, Sixers Bucks (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

The Sixers dropped to 0-2 on the young NBA season with a heartbreaking 90-88 loss to Milwaukee in their home opener. While the defense looked much better after Tuesday’s pointsfest in Boston, it was the offense that fell apart in game two.

Only one player (James Harden) broke the 20-point barrier. Joel Embiid is averaging five turnovers to five assists through two games, and the Sixers’ supporting cast has been largely uninspiring. It’s far too early to panic — we’re still in October and the Sixers have faced arguably the two best teams in basketball — but alas, this is Philly. People will panic.

Let’s start with some positive takeaways from the narrow defeat.

Good elements of Sixers’ loss to Bucks

  • James Harden is back… again!

A large portion of the fanbase is complaining about the volume of dribbling from James Harden. I’m sorry, but if anyone is stalling the offense right now it’s Joel Embiid (more on him in a bit). Harden does dribble a lot — more than anyone in the NBA — but he does so with purpose. No one manipulates his defender better than Harden. Even now, leaning more on his bruising physicality than his depleted burst, Harden can put his defender on skates with the subtlest of hesitation moves.

Harden has been the offensive engine for Philadelphia through two games. With Embiid looking like a fawn on ice, it has been up to Harden to calm things down and get the halfcourt offense in tempo. Not only is Harden creating opportunities for teammates, but he is showing himself capable of taking over games again. The Sixers entered the fourth quarter down by eight, and it was the Harden-led small ball unit — with Embiid on the bench — that led Philly back to a tie ballgame.

Harden posted 31 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists. That is vintage production — even if he’s using entirely different methods to score his points than what we once saw Houston. Harden feasted in the mid-range on Thursday. He only shot 1-of-7 from deep (after going 5-of-9 vs. Boston) and he still managed a masterful performance. That’s a good sign.

  • Ageless P.J. Tucker

The Sixers purposefully and transparently mirrored P.J. Tucker’s minutes to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s minutes on Friday. The 37-year-old played 39 minutes and managed several momentum-swinging hustle plays in the fourth quarter. It ultimately wasn’t enough, but Tucker’s energy level and defensive versatility cannot go unnoticed. He guarded Jayson Tatum the other night and he guarded Donovan Mitchell in the preseason. He’s a special player.

  • Paul Reed sighting and small-ball 

Doc Rivers went to Paul Reed in the second quarter instead of Montrezl Harrell, the right decision for this particular matchup. Reed only played five minutes total (and Harrell made a brief two-minute cameo in the second half), but it’s good to see Rivers not wholeheartedly invested in Harrell. Reed is the better player and should slowly start to earn those minutes.

Speaking of Harrell, he very quickly got played off the floor (fair warning, he will almost always get outclassed by elite opponents). The Sixers instead went small around James Harden in the fourth quarter: P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, Danuel House Jr., and De’Anthony Melton. Basically Harden and four 3-and-D wings. It worked great. That was the Sixers’ most productive unit of the night and the game wouldn’t have been within reach for Philadelphia without it. Small ball works when you have five switchable players, multiple high-level defenders, and an offensive puppeteer of Harden’s caliber pulling the strings.