Before the 2019-20 season tipped off, many league analysts picked the Philadelphia 76ers to advance to the NBA Finals. The vast majority of them weren’t predicting the Sixers would earn the top playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, though.
That distinction overwhelmingly went to the Milwaukee Bucks, who followed up a 60-win season by entering Christmas Day action with a 27-4 record and 13.0 net rating – the resumé of an all-time juggernaut.
But you wouldn’t have known it on Wednesday, when the Sixers rang in the holidays with a 121-109 beatdown of the Bucks.
Their victory wasn’t just the league’s most impressive of the season to date, either. It also served as a forceful reminder of why Philadelphia will be a different beast come playoff time and seems an especially tough matchup for basketball’s best regular-season team.
The Sixers lived up to their preseason billing as a championship favorite on Christmas. The physical and mental struggles that plagued them over the season’s first two months were nowhere to be seen, replaced by the intensity and cohesion that’s been lacking all season long.
Joel Embiid dropped 31 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks in 28 minutes. The Sixers collected 29 assists compared to just seven turnovers. They tied a franchise record by draining 21 three-pointers. Philadelphia had six players score in double figures, raced out for 18 points in transition, and wreaked havoc on the offensive glass.
This game was a blowout and a ringing endorsement of the Sixers’ ongoing viability as top-tier title contenders despite their underwhelming start to the season. No team in the league can match their size, physicality, and defensive talent.
Don’t sleep on Philadelphia – especially come spring and summer, when its strengths are inherently magnified by the postseason microscope.
It’s always folly to overreact to any single game. Philadelphia, for instance, won’t rain threes like a team full of marksmen every time it meets Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo won’t set a new personal record for most missed shots in a single game, either.
But the Sixers’ victory is so resonant regardless because it confirmed many assumptions about how they match up with the Bucks and vice versa.
Antetokounmpo, a runaway MVP favorite, is Milwaukee’s trump card. No player in basketball can successfully guard him one-on-one for a full 48 minutes. But in Embiid and Al Horford, Philadelphia has two defenders better equipped to do so than perhaps any other, and it showed again and again on Wednesday.
Antetokounmpo scored 18 points but went 8-of-27 from the field and missed all seven of his three-point attempts. He was especially frustrated going up against Embiid, the anomalous defender who gives up nothing to the reigning MVP in length and strength.
Milwaukee’s labors weren’t Antetokounmpo’s alone. Before a meaningless fourth quarter, the Bucks were 8-of-26 from three-point range and 11-of-22 in the restricted area – the high-value shots their offense is built around.
If Antetokounmpo isn’t dominating and jumpers aren’t falling, just where can Milwaukee go for offense? Their insufficient answer to that question is what doomed the Bucks against the Toronto Raptors in last year’s playoffs.
The Sixers aren’t nearly as good as those Raptors offensively but could pose even more problems for Antetokounmpo and company on the other end in a potential postseason battle. Embiid, when he’s playing like he did on Wednesday, is at least Antetokounmpo’s all-around equal, too.
One game is one game. No one should be surprised if the Bucks turn the tables on the Sixers when these teams play again in early February.
Any notion that Milwaukee is a better bet than the field to represent the East in the Finals clearly needs revisiting, though. At its peak, Philadelphia can beat anybody in a seven-game series – and is uniquely suited to stymieing Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Last modified: January 22, 2020 11:40 PM UTC