PHILADELPHIA, PA – While the playoffs might not be in the cards for the 76ers this season, the same could not be said for Saturday’s opponent, the Milwaukee Bucks.
Looking very much like a club eager to halt an untimely funk, and further position itself to lock up a berth for the next round of the NBA season, the Bucks delivered a purposeful performance at The Center, dropping the Sixers, 90-82.
The victory snapped Milwaukee’s three-game losing streak, which came on the heels of a revitalizing month of March during which the Bucks went a league-best 14-4. Most important, Saturday’s triumph, combined with a loss by the Chicago Bulls, officially punched Milwaukee’s ticket to the postseason.
Brett Brown considered the third quarter to be a crucial turning point. The Bucks outdid the Sixers, 25-12.
“They did a great job of coming out,” said Brown. “I would assume that they would have seen Chicago lose to Brooklyn at halftime (the Bulls and Nets tipped at 5:00 PM). If they win, they’re in. Whether I’m right or wrong on that belief, the third period set the stage for them.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo topped all players with 20 points. The multi-faceted, ball-handling forward, a first-time All-Star this year, also added 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and two blocks.
Doing what it does as effectively as any team in the league, Milwaukee flexed its interior muscle throughout Saturday’s pairing, establishing a decisive 52-30 scoring differential in the paint. The Bucks took the floor ranked first in the NBA in percentage of points generated in the lane.
Veteran center Greg Monroe emerged from the bench to help power Milwaukee’s efforts on the inside. He cranked out 17 points, depositing several fourth quarter baskets that tightened the Bucks’ grip on the game. Monroe grabbed five boards as well.
“I think Monroe has had a history of hurting us,” Brown said of the seventh-year big man. “Tonight, I thought that was the difference for them.”
Richaun Holmes paced the Sixers in both scoring and rebounding, with 17 points and 10 boards. He had double-double company, as fellow second-year Sixer T.J. McConnell accounted for 10 points and 10 rebounds. The double-doubles were the fifth of the season for Holmes and McConnell alike.
Not surprisingly, McConnell was most focused on the state of the Sixers.
“There’s no team in the NBA that has gone through injuries like we have,” said McConnell, whose back-up at point guard, Sergio Rodriguez, was ruled out for the remainder of the season Saturday morning. “We just can’t make excuses. We know what has happened, and we just have to keep fighting, playing together, and finish up the season season strong.”
Representing an encouraging development Saturday, Dario Saric, on the night of his 23rd birthday, looked as spry and in-rhythm as he’s been since being placed on a 24 minute playing time guideline four games ago.
The two-time reigning KIA NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, who was presented with the award just before tip-off, notched 14 points, and hauled in eight rebounds. Doing so, Saric eclipsed 500 rebounds for the season, becoming the sixth rookie in franchise history to reach that mark, while also racking up 1,000 points.
Saric was instrumental in getting the Sixers off to a steady start Saturday. His lay-up snapped the team’s near-three minute drought that coincided with the beginning of the tilt. Moments later, he followed that basket up with a 3-pointer.
The Sixers and Bucks had traded leads several times by the middle of the first period, at which point Milwaukee opened up an eight-point edge, 17-9, behind a series of drives to the cup. The visitors might have only held a narrow 23-21 edge when the frame finished, but their 20-4 margin in the paint set the tone for a central theme to the contest.
Beefing things up in the second, the Sixers saw their fortunes change. Holmes and Saric returned from the bench early in the quarter to spark the first of two 7-0 spurts that allowed the Sixers to take control.
“The first quarter, we were too concerned with shooters,” said Holmes, as he discussed the defensive adjustments the Sixers made in the first half. “I think it’s something we really focused on in the second quarter, to just be there to protect the paint. We did a better job.”
The second of the Sixers’ 7-0 second-quarter runs, which again would feature Holmes and Saric, came in direct response to an Antetokounmpo finger roll that trimmed the Bucks’ deficit to three. The Sixers didn’t flinch, subsequently pushing the gap to double-digits, 44-34, and carrying a 48-42 advantage into the break. Momentum appeared to be theirs.
A dunk from Justin Anderson kept the Sixers in front by six, 52-46, three minutes into the second stanza, but Milwaukee – so successful on the interior during the first half – called on perimeter production to swing Saturday’s bout back in its favor. Triples from Matthew Dellavedova (14 pts, 3 reb, 3 ast) and Tony Snell (5 pts) fueled a 21-8 blitz that the Bucks rode to the end of the third quarter. At that stage, they led 67-60.
Milwaukee then went back to the paint, where it churned out 16 more points in the fourth. The Sixers were unable to match the Bucks’ scoring pace.
“We, offensively, continue to not shoot like we’re going to have to shoot,” Brown said.
The Sixers converted 35.1 percent of their shots Saturday, and went 8 for 31 from the field.
“That’s not going to be good enough to get it done.”
“To know we had a bad shooting night,” said McConnell. “It just kind of makes you wonder, if we did shoot the ball well, how the game would have turned out. Unfortunately, we didn’t shoot the ball well.”
The Bucks, conversely, produced a 44.3 field goal percentage, which proved good enough for them to get by.
The win resulted in the Sixers and Milwaukee splitting their four-game season series. In each match-up, it was the road team that prevailed.
Even at this late stage of the season, perhaps opponents still haven’t quite gotten the memo regarding Richaun Holmes and his rim-protecting prowess. The big man entered Saturday evening ranked fifth among all second-year players with 53 blocked shots. He delivered a pair of swats versus Milwaukee, the one shown below being his first.
The most successful home campaign of the four-year Brett Brown era comes to an end Monday, when the Sixers host the Indiana Pacers. The Sixers’ 17 victories in South Philadelphia this season are 10 better than last year’s total. In his first two seasons, Brown’s team prevailed on its own hardwood 10 times in 2013-2014, and 12 times in 2014-2015. As for Indiana, the Pacers rolled past the Orlando Magic Saturday, 127-112. The victory pushed Indiana back to .500, and moved the club into seventh-place in the Eastern Conference standings with two games to go.