The Philadelphia 76ers tore Giannis Antetokounmpo and the best-team-in-the-league Milwaukee Bucks apart on Christmas Day, 121-109, in a game they led by as many as 25 points in. The Sixers own wins against the Heat, Raptors, Bucks and Nuggets, too. It’s time to move them into championship discussion.
Philly looked like the team we hoped they’d grow into on Christmas, with Joel Embiid defending like the best rim-protector in the league, Ben Simmons running in transition like no one else his size, Tobias Harris leading a perimeter-shooting onslaught, and new-acquisition Al Horford filling in the gaps. This is as close to the height of how good the Sixers can be that we’ve seen, and why all of SB Nation’s writers picked them to win the East.
Philly’s long-armed and tall skyscrapers held Antetokounmpo, the clear lead for the league’s MVP award, to one of his worst performances ever. He scored just 18 points on 8-of-27 shooting, the most misses of his entire career. He was flustered all game, having the ball poked and prodded on his way to the bucket with each drive. He turned the ball over three times and never had a handle on this one. Then Philly took off running, playing one of the best games of any team all year.
How did the Sixers hold off Giannis?
All game long, Philly dared Giannis to beat them from the outside. Antetokounmpo has had a hot shooting month, making 44 percent of his triples, but shoots 29 percent for his career. Chances were, his hot spell would end, and Philly chose right. Giannis missed all seven his attempts against the Sixers, even when left embarrassingly open, Ben Simmons style.
Instead of chasing Giannis to the arc, Philly anchored its big men, Horford and Embiid, down low to embrace his physicality as he met the rim. It resulted in a ton of off-balance shots for Antetokounmpo, and a handful of strips. Where Giannis usually makes his money, he kept seeing ghosts.
Embiid standing his ground against Giannis pic.twitter.com/4rwXwP3INd— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) December 25, 2019
Kris Middleton stepped up to keep things semi-competitive into the second half, scoring 31 points on 21 shots, but Giannis’ struggles weighed Milwaukee down all game. The Sixers’ defense deserves a ton of credit. This wasn’t merely a bad shooting night for the reigning MVP.
The Sixers shot the ball extremely well
A big concern all year long for Philly has been their three-point shooting. They take the fifth-fewest attempts in the league, and sit around the middle-of-the-pack making 36 percent of them. Against the Bucks, they caught fire, tearing one of the league’s best defenses apart.
Philly shot 44 threes (14 more than average) and made 21 of them. The Sixers’ typically clunky offense spread the floor, with six players taking four or more deep-ball attempts. Tobias Harris made 5-of-7, Al Horford 3-of-7, Joel Embiid 3-of-6, Furkan Korkmaz 4-of-5 and Josh Richardson 4-of-11.
The Sixers went on to make 44 percent of their shots from the field, 48 percent from range, 12-of-15 free throws and only turn the ball over just seven times.
The Sixers are coming to life
We knew it’d take some time, but the Sixers’ beating on the Bucks showed us they’re coming together. They have key wins over some of the best teams in the league (they haven’t played either L.A. juggernaut yet), and now a huge win over debatably the best one.
Philly has seemed to play up or down to its competition all year long, and you can deduce any meaning from that you wish. Maybe the Sixers don’t care about weak competition. Maybe the Sixers have just hit highs and lows at inopportune times. Regardless, the Sixers have looked deadly against the teams they’ll need to beat in April, May and maybe June, and that means something. They sit 23-10, the fourth-best record in the East, and came into the day with the ninth-best net rating, outscoring opponents by 4.93 points per 100 possessions.
It isn’t time to put the Sixers at the top of the discussion, but they should be welcomed to the title-contending table. This was an embarrassing night for the Bucks’ claim as the NBA’s team to beat.