Since Christmas, there haven't been a lot of games when the Sixers have forced us to wonder how much better they would be if their original blueprint was intact. But by the end of the third quarter of their 118-110 loss to the Bucks on Sunday night, the question was impossible not to ask.
Would Markelle Fultz have made a difference?
There's an argument that says he wouldn't have, because he was never expected to be the kind of player capable of locking down Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 21-0 run that the Bucks rattled off in the final six minutes of the third quarter was first and foremost the product of a player who was virtually impossible to guard. Whether he was pulling up from the elbow over Ersan Ilyasova or grabbing a rebound and pushing the ball upcourt to create a mismatched defensive set in transition, the 7-foot MVP candidate was a problem the Sixers simply could not solve. He scored or assisted on 12 points as the Bucks stormed back from an 86-72 deficit to take a 93-86 lead, part of a night in which he finished with 35 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
But there were two sides to the story of that stunning run. Just as conspicuous as the Sixers' inability to stop the Bucks was their inability to answer. Granted, much of the damage was self-inflicted. Over that last 6:32 of the third quarter, the Sixers attempted just eight shots compared to the Bucks' 18. Part of that was a function of Milwaukee's four offensive rebounds, but a bigger factor was the Sixers' inability to get off a shot.
It's situations like these in which Fultz was supposed to make his mark in opening up the offense as a ball-handler capable of creating penetration and finishing around the rim. Instead, the Sixers had T.J. McConnell and Marco Belinelli with Ben Simmons on the perimeter for the first 13 points of the Milwaukee run. With 2:19 left in the third quarter and the Sixers' lead having shrunk to one, McConnell cut down the lane behind a double-team of Embiid but was smothered by Antetokounmpo after receiving the pass and threw up a fumbled shot that ended up out of bounds. Moments like that were the kind that made you wonder if a player like Fultz would have made a difference.
Don't misinterpret that as an indictment of McConnell. His play this season has been one of the big reasons why we don't end up asking the Fultz question more often. But his strength is not in creating his own shot, and this was a situation where the Sixers desperately needed somebody to step up and do so.
It was only one game, and we should be careful not to read too deeply in a search for implications. In the end, the Sixers lost because of their inability to take care of the ball and their inability to match up with Antetokounmpo. Their 26 turnovers were their most in a game since early last season, while the Bucks finished the game with only 13. Take that minus-13 margin and add it to the fact that Milwaukee had a plus-10 advantage in offensive rebounds, and it is a wonder that they kept the loss to single digits, since they effectively gave the Bucks 23 free possessions.
At the same time, the Process has always been about the bigger picture, and the Bucks are one of those opponents that offer a measuring stick for both the short- and long-term future. At 34-28, the Sixers are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, with the Bucks a half game behind them entering play Monday. Only 2 1/2 games separated the two teams from the three in front of them, meaning a Bucks-Sixers first-round series is well within the realm of possibility. And that means Antetokounmpo is a problem that could need to be solved for the Sixers to go anywhere in the postseason. In their two games against him this season, he has 66 points, 27 rebounds and 13 assists in a couple of Bucks wins.
In Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers have a couple of players who can create the kind of matchup problems that Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks. But there is a reason Bryan Colangelo traded one of his most valuable assets to move up from No. 3 to No. 1 this past spring. With Fultz, they thought they were adding a dimension that did not yet exist on the roster. The whole thing was built with the presence of that skill set in mind.
The Sixers have given us little indication of when they expect to reintroduce that dimension. It's an unknown that constitutes one of the trickiest things about predicting the true potential of this team.