Late in the third quarter on Thursday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo took over as a playmaker to help the Milwaukee Bucks build a double-digit lead and elicit boos from the restless Philadelphia 76ers crowd. Heading into the fourth quarter in full control, it seemed the Bucks were in line for a comfortable season-opening win.
Five minutes later, the script had been completely flipped. While Giannis sat on the bench, James Harden led a Sixers charge to tie the game, and suddenly Wells Fargo Center was raucous. The remainder of the game was a rather ugly back-and-forth affair that the Bucks ultimately won, 90-88, thanks in large part to a clutch 3-pointer by Wesley Matthews in the final minute.
The main storylines from the Bucks’ win were Giannis looking awesome in his debut (21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists), Harden proving he’s fully healthy (31 points, eight rebounds and nine assists), Joel Embiid’s lackluster night (15 points on 6 of 21 from the field) and the Sixers suddenly being 0-2 against the other two main contenders for the Eastern Conference crown.
An additional point, which would not have flown under the radar in Milwaukee, is that even in victory this game was another reminder of Khris Middleton’s importance to the Bucks. The veteran missed that series with a knee injury and is now out for the first few weeks of the season while he recovers from wrist surgery.
In many ways, this was a repeat of last season’s second-round playoff exit against the Boston Celtics. Time and again Giannis showed why he’s the best player in the league, but there was no one else to help carry the offensive burden, especially with Jrue Holiday shooting 2 of 15. The Bucks were plus-13 in Giannis’ 36 minutes and minus-11 in the 12 minutes he did not play. As a whole, non-Giannis Bucks were 25 of 68 from the field.
Even when Giannis was on the floor in the fourth quarter, the offense was rough. They scored 10 points over the final 10 minutes and turned the ball over five times in that stretch. Two of their biggest baskets — a Grayson Allen layup and Matthews’ clutch 3-pointer — were heavily aided by miscues by the Sixers’ defense.
Too often the offense would stagnate, leaving Holiday to force the issue in isolation, which is not his strong suit.
Or they would get a look they liked, just not for the preferred player. Late in the fourth quarter another Sixers mistake left Jevon Carter wide open, but he missed the 3 from the corner. On another day that’s Middleton or perhaps Pat Connaughton, who was also out injured for this game.
Similarly, down two with less than 90 seconds to play, they ran a high pick-and-roll with Allen and Giannis, with the former trying to go all the way to the rim. Allen ends up scoring later on this possession after Harden falls asleep on the offensive rebound, but the point remains; the Middleton-Giannis pick-and-roll is far superior.
The Bucks still won, and as long as Giannis is out there they’ll be one of the league’s top teams. But like last season’s playoff loss before it, this game was another reminder that they need Middleton to reach their full potential.