MILWAUKEE – The 76ers had problems.
Joel Embiid was coming off four consecutive games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds. Ben Simmons had two triple-doubles. And JJ Redick was off to fantastic start to the season.
“We need help,” coach Brett Brown said on Oct. 24, 20 or so minutes after his team’s 123-108 loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee.
Brown was talking about players not named Redick, Embiid, and Simmons needing to step up. But the Sixers’ front office rectified things with roster-altering trades.
That’s why Sunday’s return to MIlwaukee for an ABC nationally televised game against the league’s best team is so intriguing.
Look at just how much the Sixers (44-25) have improved after the face-lifts.
Back on Oct. 24, they rolled out a starting lineup of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Embiid, Markelle Fultz, and Simmons. Redick was the sixth man and Landry Shamet was his promising rookie understudy.
These days, Covington and Saric have been replaced by standouts Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris. The Sixers elevated Redick into his rightful place as the starting shooting guard and dispensed with the major distraction it had in Fultz. Shamet is excelling with the Los Angeles Clippers. And the All-Star duo of Simmons and Embiid are co-existing better.
In all, the Sixers have just six holdovers who received playing time in that setback to the Bucks (52-17). Even the number of holdovers is a bit misleading. Reserve Furkan Korkmaz, who played just 6 minutes, 4 seconds that night, has been sidelined since Feb. 13 with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Five months later, the Bucks are still churning out wins, while the Sixers are the NBA’s enigma.
Philly was the Eastern Conference third seed behind the Bucks and Toronto Raptors as of Friday night. The Sixers’ starting lineup of Butler, Harris, Embiid, Redick, and Simmons has been dubbed the Phantastic 5 by ESPN and was recently on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But the much-publicized starting lineup hasn’t had a lot of time to jell. The five players have been a complete unit in only six out of a possible 15 games after Harris and reserves Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, James Ennis, and Jonathon Simmons were acquired via trades Feb. 7.
Embiid missed eight games with tendinitis in his left knee. Butler sat out one to rest.
All five starters did play in the 112-109 loss to the Boston Celtics on Feb. 12 at the Wells Fargo Center. But that was five days and the third game after the trade deadline. So it was hard to get a read on the Sixers that night.
Sunday will be different.
“I can’t wait, because I think what it is, is it’s a reality check,” Brown said. “It really is an opportunity for us to see where we are at.”
We’ll find out if the Sixers are a legitimate conference contender along with Milwaukee and Toronto (49-20). We’ll see if they’ll do a better job of defending the Bucks’ frontcourt players.
But it won’t take much for Philly to show improvement since the last time these teams played.
Poor three-point shooting, costly turnovers, and defensive woes doomed the visiting team back then.
The Sixers made 11 of 34 three-pointers (32.4 percent). However, they made just 5 of 26 attempts in the last three quarters.
The Bucks also scored 18 points off the Sixers’ then season-high-tying 16 turnovers. Philly also had a tough time guarding Milwaukee’s frontcourt players Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez.
Antetokounmpo, a league MVP front-runner, finished with 32 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists, three blocks, two steals, and five turnovers. Small forward Middleton added 25 points, while Lopez had 21. The center made 5 of 9 three-pointers.
For the most part, Simmons, Embiid, and Redick had solid performances.
Simmons finished the game with 14 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists, one steal, and three turnovers. Embiid had a team-high 30 points to go with a game-high 19 rebounds, six assists, three blocks, and two turnovers, while Redick added 19 points off the bench.
Saric had 15 points, but he graded out at a minus-16. Covington (eight points) had a game-worst minus-26.
The forwards were part of a package shipped to the Minnesota Timberwolves 19 days later in exchange for Butler.
“After they beat us pretty handily, we have added a lot of talented guys to our roster,” T.J. McConnell said. “So I’m very excited to play them.