The Bucks-76ers matchup in Philadelphia on Christmas was supposed to be one of the two marquee games of the day alongside Clippers-Lakers, as it featured a showdown of the two teams expected to be at the top of the East entering the season.
Through a bit over a third of the season,, it was the Bucks that had held up their end of the bargain at 27-4, the best record in the NBA. The Sixers were at a respectable 22-10, but offensive inconsistencies had led to question marks about whether they belonged in the title contender conversation still.
On Wednesday, they gave that answer emphatically, dismantling the Bucks in one of the most impressive performances of the season on both ends of the floor. Their 121-109 win was, for much of the second half, far more lopsided than the final score indicated. Offensively, they had 100 points after three quarters and set team record with 21 made threes on 44 attempts. On defense, they stymied the Bucks offense, most notably giving Giannis Antetokounmpo fits thanks to a standout performance by Joel Embiid.
Embiid had 31 points and 11 rebounds on the night, but it was what he did defensively that was most impressive. Embiid was the primary defender for long stretches on Giannis, keeping the reigning MVP (and leading MVP candidate this year) away from the rim. He also made a few unbelievable plays on Antetokounmpo in transition to start the second half, where he is typically unstoppable.
— NBA (@NBA) December 25, 2019
That strip and block were the two best examples of Embiid’s tremendous performance against Giannis, as he used his strength and length to neutralize the advantages Giannis typically has in both of those areas. Antetokounmpo was 8-for-27 from the field and missed all seven of his attempts from deep. A large part of this was due to the efforts of Embiid, who contained Giannis well enough to allow the other Sixers defenders to stick to shooters on the perimeter — Milwaukee was just 9-for-28 on threes to start the game (they made four of their final five to make the game lose late).
In no way is what the Sixers did suddenly a blueprint for other teams to follow in trying to stop the Bucks and Giannis, because no one else has a Joel Embiid or the length as a unit that Philly does. However, given the potential for these two to meet in the playoffs in either the conference semis or conference finals, the performance in this game offered a glimpse at what the Bucks will have to deal with in a series with the Sixers. Embiid will spend the majority of the time on Giannis, forcing him to hit tougher, contested shots outside the restricted area and making his supporting cast knock down shots and create more on that end.
It’s the approach we’ve seen from other teams in the postseason the past two seasons, and it remains the biggest question of the Bucks: Can they consistently hit shots (this, of course, is a question for every team)? There’s also the question of who else is capable of creating offense when the defense forces the ball out of the hands of Giannis. It’s been the place where Eric Bledsoe has struggled in the postseason in the past and where Milwaukee still needs to prove it the most, and on Wednesday, Bledsoe was unable to take the floor.
For Philly, they proved that, when their shots are falling, they absolutely belong in the title conversation. Embiid is an upper echelon star, Tobias Harris looked like the floor-spacing forward they desperately need him to be, and Ben Simmons was engaged and attacking downhill with 15 points and 14 assists. The offense came alive and when paired with their defensive potential, they are a truly terrifying team when firing on all cylinders.
— NBA (@NBA) December 25, 2019
This game didn’t prove Philly is better than Milwaukee, but rather proved that this is a series we should be waiting on. A seven-game matchup would produce some tremendous games, force both teams to try some things that are uncomfortable to them, and be, most of all, about who can impose their will the most over the course of the series.