What we saw, what we learned, and what we wondered in the Sixers’ 112-101 loss to the Bucks:
1) Joel Embiid’s shot is clearly limited by the splint on his surgically-repaired finger, and it may be affecting him elsewhere.
Embiid had his latest abysmal night since returning from surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left hand. Consider this sequence after the Sixers returned from the locker room at the half trailing by three. On their first possession of the third quarter, Embiid had his shot blocked by Giannis Antetokounmpo. On their second possession, he bricked a three-pointer. On their third possession, he drew a foul but only manged to hit 1-of-2 from the line.
All night, that is how it went. Embiid missed 11 of his first 12 shots, and it probably should have been 12 of 13 after what appeared to be a clean block by Brook Lopez was called a foul in the first half. Late in the third quarter, the Sixers were trailing by 10 and Embiid was 2-for-15 from the floor and 3-for-6 from the foul line. Given his usage rate, this team simply can’t win when their big guy plays with this little efficiency.
This probably wasn’t the right night to wonder whether the Sixers would be better off if Embiid continued his recuperation out of uniform. The last time they faced the Bucks, he played a significant role in limiting Antetokounmpo to one of his worst offensive performances of the season. It’s incredibly hard to look at Giannis from sea level and argue that the Sixers would have some semblance of a chance of stopping him without their biggest physical presence, regardless of the percentage at which he is operating.
At the very least, it’s fair to wonder whether, moving forward, the Sixers might benefit from limiting Embiid’s minutes. Or, at least, limiting his role in the offense. Embiid’s shooting hand might be healthy, but a player’s guide hand can have a significant impact on his shot, and it stands to reason that impact only increases the more pounding that hand takes. At the risk of projecting something that isn’t there, it certainly seems as if Embiid’s hand has knocked him out of his usual equilibrium. He isn’t getting the results that he usually gets on the shots that he usually takes, and the resulting frustration is the sort of thing that can bleed into every aspect of a player’s game. Even if it is not a conscious thing, anybody who has been injured can tell you that the subconscious understanding that you are not 100 percent can impact you as much as the physiological symptoms/limitations.
It’s a particularly fair question to ask when you consider the ways in which both he and Ben Simmons must limit their games in order to fit with the other. In normal times, one can argue that those sacrifices combine to make the duo better as a whole. But that’s a hard case to make at the end of the third quarter of a crucial game when Embiid has attempted 17 shots and made three and Simmons has attempted five and made four.
2) Al Horford was the biggest reason the Sixers were within striking distance for as long as they were, which illustrates something about this team’s struggles.
The Sixers’ offense was always predicated on the notion that Horford’s shooting ability was scalable, that you could increase the volume of his attempts by 75-100 percent and his makes would rise accordingly. For the most part, that has not been the case. Horford consistently finds himself in positions where a more natural stretch four might thrive. But, thus far, he simply has not shown a quick enough release or a quick enough first step to fully capitalize on those opportunities. That’s not a knock on him - he’s being asked to play a role that, while necessary, is not conducive to his skill set.
Against the Bucks, you saw the importance of a stretch four who shoots 38-40 percent on a high volume of threes. Horford’s ability to knock down his catch-and-shoot threes was the primary reason the Sixers were in the game as long as they were. Midway through the third quarter, he hit a three-pointer out of a timeout after the Bucks had pulled out to a 70-57 lead. Midway through the fourth, he hit one that cut the Sixers’ deficit to 99-93. At that point, Horford had hit five of a career-high 11 attempts from deep.
3) The Eastern Conference champ is either going to be the team that has Giannis or a team that has the personnel to stop him.