MILWAUKEE — It’s become reflexive at this point: You see a marquee matchup on the regular season schedule and even as your pulse starts to quicken, you talk yourself down.
Sure, you want to see the big-name teams with the brightest stars in the network games. But if the calendar says anything before the second weekend in April, you’ve learned to have your guard up. Injuries, “load management,” rotation tinkering and even occasional sandbagging can thwart a showdown in the regular season that would have NBA fans salivating in the postseason.
Fortunately for folks showing up and tuning in Sunday afternoon, neither the Philadelphia 76ers nor the Milwaukee Bucks were in position to play left-hand through their matinee at Fiserv Forum.
The Bucks were at home, defending a 27-5 mark in Milwaukee while coping with the loss of starting guard Malcolm Brogdon (right foot, plantar fascia tear). Brogdon is the only player in the league shooting at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the arc and 90 percent from the foul line. His absence would show in a shaky shooting performance by his teammates.
The Sixers, meanwhile, were jazzed about starting their preferred lineup for only the seventh time all season. Tobias Harris’ arrival last month before the trade deadline, followed by injuries to Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler, had limited coach Brett Brown to just a half dozen games to all three with backcourt Ben Simmons and J.J. Redick. Continuity matters for contenders, as does familiarity, so Philadelphia had four weeks beginning Sunday to get fully acquainted.
“Sixers 3.0,” Redick said afterward of this latest incarnation.
Said Brown: “There is no right to have a fluid side and a chemistry and symmetry. [We] have no right to have that. It’s not anybody’s fault but the calendar’s. Growing and being excited about that and trying to polish that before the playoffs begin is our goal.”
The goal looked a little more in focus after the Sixers’ 130-125 victory. What it lacked in drama — after the early minutes of the second quarter, Philadelphia’s lead only slipped to within a single possession in the final seconds, with Milwaukee desperately fouling — it made up for in moments. And individual performances. And strategies and counters to file away should they see each other again in May (they also meet April 4 in Philadelphia).
Embiid was a monster for the Sixers with 40 points, 15 rebounds, six assists and three steals. His most promising stat might have been his 15-of-31 shooting. Twice this season, the Philadelphia center had been limited (by his team or the other guys) to single digits in field-goal attempts. Eight of the 11 games in which he shot the ball 15 times or fewer came before Christmas.
But he’s averaging about 22 shots in his four games back after missing eight (left knee soreness) after the All-Star break. That’s a career high level and a better number both for him and his team, made possible by the threats surrounding him now.
Butler, meanwhile, scored 14 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, taking command at his favorite time of the game and taking air out of the ball from Milwaukee’s late gasps.
As for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s monster performance — a career-high 52 points, with 16 rebounds, seven assists, a plus-12 rating, 19-of-21 from the foul line and three 3-pointer in eight tries — even that meant something positive for the Sixers. They stuck to their schemes, didn’t overreact to the Greek Freak’s enormity and got some video to bone up on, should they meet for four or more this spring.
You might think a defensive player’s shoulders would sag to see Antetokounmpo, so dangerous in most other ways, pulling up — and hitting — from the arc. But the Sixers had made up their mind to live or even die with that Sunday, simply filing it away.
“I think they feel the same way about me,” Embiid said, after making four of his 13 3-point shots. “They let me shoot, they left me wide open the whole night from three. If he’s going to go 10-for-15 from three, we can make some adjustment. But that’s something we’re going to live with.”
That would have been a postseason move, Brown said. Besides, Antetokounmpo’s teammates were cooperating, shooting 13-of-42 on 3-pointers, just 4-of-7 from the line and 28-of-69 (40.6 percent) overall. Even Milwaukee’s first 50-point, 15-rebound game since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played here couldn’t make up for those numbers.
“For this game we were probably going to ride it out,” the Sixers coach said. “The phrasing that most comes to my mind when you ask that question is ‘tolerance level.’ … There’s a point where you say, ‘Enough’s enough.’ Tonight wasn’t going to be one of those nights for me.
“In the event you do match up in the playoffs, what can you learn, especially how to beat ‘em in a four-game series? Maybe that philosophy would change in that type of environment. But tonight I feel like we were going to stay in our schemes and live with it.”
More than a few Sixers referred afterward to Milwaukee as the NBA’s best team “by record,” an asterisk implied. You’ll get arguments on both sides whether there truly are “statement games” that have legs into the playoffs. So let’s just say Philadelphia laid down a marker.
And its greatest challenge will come from within.
“The key thing is we’ve all got to stay healthy,” Embiid said of the next four weeks. “We go from there. We play together. We’re learning how to play with each other. We feel comfortable with each other. We know where all of us want the ball at when we’re all comfortable. We’ve got time to figure it all out. We’ve won four games in a row, so that’s a good start.”
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