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5 takeaways from Bucks' defensive victory in Philadelphia

Jrue Holiday's 2-way play guides Milwaukee in a season-opening victory, James Harden's mid-range game re-appears and more.

Jrue Holiday’s two-way play helps seal the Bucks’ victory over the 76ers in their season debut.

When the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers met at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, it was some old-school Eastern Conference basketball, with both teams scoring less than a point per possession.

The Bucks were on the right side of a 90-88 final score, withstanding a fourth-quarter comeback from the Sixers. Wesley Matthews hit the game-winning 3 and Jrue Holiday got the big stop down the stretch, as the Bucks opened their season with a quality road win and dropped the Sixers to 0-2.

Here are some notes, numbers and film from this battle of Eastern Conference contenders:

1. All-Defense

Holiday was not giving up his assignment. James Harden ran him through a bevy of screens down the stretch, but Holiday did his best to stick with his man, rather than allow his teammates to get caught in a undesired switch. His tenacity stood out on two particular possessions:

• With a little less than four minutes left, Holiday raced under two Joel Embiid screens to keep Harden from getting to the basket. He then squeezed over a third Embiid screen and got his hands up to deflect Harden’s pass back to Embiid:

Jrue Holiday deflection


• Then, after Matthews’ go-ahead 3 and a missed call that kept the ball in the Sixers’ hands, Holiday again got himself back in front of Harden to contest him on the Sixers’ final possession:

Jrue Holiday defense vs. James Harden

Holiday isn’t the most consistently great defender in this league, but when he’s dialed in (which is usually is down the stretch of big games), he’s a menace. The two possessions above are some high-level NBA defense against one of the best offensive players of his generation.

2. Mid-range James

While Harden was stopped on those two late possessions, he had a second straight big game. He followed up his 35 points in the Sixers’ loss in Boston on Tuesday with another 31 against the Bucks. It’s the first time that’s he’s scored at least 30 points in consecutive games since the Sixers acquired him (35 total games with Philly) and the first time since he did in three straight games (with Brooklyn) on Dec. 27, Dec. 30 and Jan. 1 of last season.

But this 30-point game was much different than the last one. On Tuesday, 27 of Harden’s 35 came in true Harden style, from 3-point range (5-for-9) or at the free-throw line (12-for-12)*. But on Thursday, he was just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc and 4-for-4 from the line. And 24 of his 31 points came inside the arc. It was the first time he had 12 or more 2-point makes in almost three years. The last time, those 24 points weren’t even half of his 59 in a 159-158 (regulation!) victory in Washington.

* There have been eight instances in NBA history where a player has made at least 200 3-pointers and 600 free throws in a season, and Harden has six of the eight.

Even weirder is that six of those 12 2-point buckets came from outside the paint. That’s almost as many mid-range field goals as he had in the entire 2020-21 season (9) … or the entire 2019-20 season (10). This is a guy who would, essentially, never take mid-range shots.

The mid-range James performance on Thursday included a pull-up that gave the Sixers their first lead since the first minute of the game:

If Harden is now willing to take those mid-range shots, his pick-and-roll game with Joel Embiid will be more dangerous. It can also help him as he ages and doesn’t have the same burst (or finishing ability) as he had in his Houston days.

3. Tucker at the 5

In the first half, the Sixers used Paul Reed at back-up center. Late in the third quarter, it was Montrezl Harrell who checked in for Embiid. And then Harrell checked out after just 2 1/2 minutes on the floor. But he wasn’t replaced by Embiid or Reed. It was Tobias Harris who checked back in, moving P.J. Tucker to center, a call back to the old “Tuckwagon” lineup employed by the Houston Rockets.

The moved worked for Philly. When Harrell checked out, the Sixers were down 11. But they held the Bucks scoreless on the next eight possessions, forcing turnovers on five of the eight. Tucker was personally responsible for two of those eight stops, stripping Holiday on a drive (scored as a block) and then deflecting a Holiday pass on the very next possession.

The Sixers used Tucker at the five for 4:11 in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Bucks, 11-2, over that stretch. Those two points came on 10 Milwaukee possessions.

Of course, Sixers coach Doc Rivers wasn’t about to sit Embiid for the entire fourth quarter, and the MVP runner-up checked back in with 5:38 left.

4. Big man struggles

Well, there is an argument for keeping Embiid on the bench. And the argument is that he shot just 6-for-21 (including 5-for-15 in the paint), had more turnovers (4) than assists (3), and registered a game-worst minus-10 in his 36 minutes of action.

Credit the Bucks’ defense. They did a solid job of keeping Embiid from getting all the way to the rim, playing him soft to force him to take jumpers, even of those jumpers wide open and from just 10 feet out. And they did it without fouling; It was just the seventh time since the start of the 20-21 season (142 games including playoffs) that Embiid attempted fewer than four free throws.

Embiid is a good shooter and will usually make connect on better than 3-for-14 from outside the restricted area. But if he’s taking jumpers instead of layups or free throws, that’s going to work out better for the defense.

Of course, he was also 3-for-7 in the restricted area, getting absolutely stuffed by both Giannis Antetokounmpo:

Giannis Antetokounmpo block Joel Embiid


… and Brook Lopez:

The Bucks were also able to defend Embiid post-ups without double-teaming. Not many teams can do that.

5. Playing with pace

It was the first game of the season for the Bucks, and they were without Khris Middleton. So we could expect some clunkiness on offense. But some of that was self-inflicted, where they just took too long to get into their sets.

When they played with pace, the Bucks played well. They had 17 fastbreak points, thanks in part to the Sixers’ inability to get back in transition.

But the Bucks were also better when they played with pace within their half-court offense. Quicker actions led to better shots:

Giannis Antetokounmpo dunk

According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Bucks had an effective field goal percentage of 61.0% (21-41 FGs, 8-21 3PM) in the first 12 seconds of the shot clock and just 36.9% (13-42 FGs, 5-21 3PM) in the last 12 seconds of the shot clock.

The Sixers didn’t have nearly as dramatic a differential (48.7% vs. 44.3%), but they got some easy baskets by letting Tyrese Maxey do his thing:

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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