MILWAUKEE -- Early on Thursday evening, an hour before the Philadelphia 76ers were scheduled to take on the Milwaukee Bucks in an Eastern Conference showdown, Joel Embiid was out on the floor in his warmup gear, trying to find a rhythm with the patented step-back move of his new star teammate James Harden.
Later on, in the closing minutes of the third quarter, Embiid showed that hard work pays off. Catching the ball near the 3-point line on the right wing, he took a few hard dribbles into Serge Ibaka's chest as if he was going to bully his way to the basket, then reversed course and buried the a step-back to beat the shot clock that would have made his new teammate proud.
A review later showed that his toe was on the line, but those two points were still the most impressive of the 42 he dropped in the Sixers' 123-120 win to close out the first half of the season before the All-Star break. He added 14 rebounds and five assists for good measure, and left everyone -- fans and opposing players alike -- shaking their heads at his brilliance.
"Obviously we can do better, he had 40 points," Giannis Antetokounmpo said. "But man he's playing amazing. You gotta give him credit. He's getting to the free-throw line, he's knocking down 3s, the offense is played through him in every single possession that he's in the game. You can't play him one-on-one ... he was really good tonight."
The Bucks know better than most that superstars are just going to win games for their teams from time to time. That has been, and always will be the case in the NBA. Embiid did it for the Sixers on Thursday, and his performance was the main story. But the defeat also highlighted some bigger-picture issues that has plagued Milwaukee.
First and foremost is Brook Lopez's absence. He's been out since opening night due to a back injury that required surgery, so it's not a new problem, but it's brought to the fore when the Bucks go up against a guy like Embiid. Philadelphia's star man played four games against Milwaukee in the previous two seasons, and averaged 22.7 points, nine rebounds and four assists on 36.4 percent from the field. Lopez featured in all of those contests.
On Thursday night, with Lopez out of the lineup for Embiid's first matchup against the Bucks this campaign, we saw what happened. Now, Embiid deserves a lot of credit for the improvements he's made; he's been crushing everyone and is one of the leading MVP candidates. Still, the disparity provides very clear evidence of Lopez's importance to the Bucks.
"[Playing without Lopez has] been extremely tough," Khris Middleton said earlier this month. "I think the frustration is starting to set in within the whole group of just having that missing piece. I think we've all realized what Brook brought to our team as far as the versatility, but then also his size and what he does in the paint and how he defends for us. But I think with this long stretch of him being out for pretty much this whole season so far, we're like, 'Aw, man.' We definitely appreciate the big guy and how much he sacrifices for us, for the team to be so successful.
"We definitely can't wait to have him back out there and hopefully it will be soon, but we really miss him," Middleton continued. "He's a guy that blocks shots, rebounds, keeps guys off the glass too, which allows opportunities for myself, Giannis, Jrue, other guards to come in and get those rebounds, but what he does, doesn't always necessarily go on the stat sheet. But we see it in the film."
We are approaching five months since Lopez has been on the shelf and all of the cascading effects appear to be finally taking their toll. Not just in terms of guarding bigs or rebounding -- the Bucks are 12th in rebounding percentage this season after three straight seasons in the top-five -- but in the team's overall defensive performance.
In February, the Bucks have a 115 defensive rating, which is tied for 20th in the league with the Sacramento Kings. They're on pace to have the single worst defensive month they have had since head coach Mike Budenholzer was hired in 2018, according to NBA.com.
"The defense, could we be better? Yes," Budenholzer said.
"Just staying locked in to what we do," Jordan Nwora said. "Can't get away from what coaches are telling us every day in practice. Just staying locked in."
"Just guard harder," Giannis said. "Compete harder. Get more stops."
The Bucks weren't exactly introspective as they tried to exit Fiserv Forum for All-Star weekend, but they know they have to be better on that end of the floor, and they know they can be better. We've seen it for stretches this season, and even at times against the Sixers, despite how many points as they gave up.
So far, though, due to the long grind of a title defense, a stream of injuries and COVID-19 cases and constantly changing rotations, the Bucks have not been able to reach their championship-level defensive standards on a consistent basis. Lopez's return would solve a lot of problems, but with or without him the Bucks need to get back to their good habits on that side of the ball or there won't be another parade down Wisconsin Avenue this summer.