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Giannis makes MVP case with 40 points, key block of Embiid to earn Bucks win

PHILADELPHIA — Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points and had a game-deciding block of Joel Embiid in the final seconds to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a 118-116 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night in a matchup of two of the Eastern Conference’s top teams.

Khris Middleton added 22 points and Jrue Holiday had 18 for the Bucks, who pulled within a half-game of idle Miami for first place in the East.

James Harden had 32 points and nine rebounds for the 76ers, and Embiid recovered from a slow start and finished with 29 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. Philadelphia dropped 1½ behind the Heat in the conference.

Antetokounmpo added 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks for the defending NBA champion Bucks.

The Bucks scored 13 of the first 17 points of the fourth, going in front on Middleton’s 3-pointer that made it 94-93 with nine minutes to play. The game remained close the rest of the way, with neither team going up by more than six points.

Every time it looked as if Milwaukee was going to pull away, the 76ers answered with a 3 to stay close. Embiid’s 3-pointer with 49.8 seconds left pulled Philadelphia within 117-116. After a turnover by Brook Lopez, Philadelphia had a chance to go in front, but Embiid missed a 14-footer following a timeout.

Antetokounmpo was fouled on the ensuing possession and made the first of two free throws to put the Bucks up 118-116 with 13.2 seconds to play. After another 76ers timeout, Harden’s step-back 3 was long. Embiid grabbed the rebound and looked primed to tie it with an easy layup, but Antetokounmpo swatted it away with 1.6 seconds left. The officials originally ruled that it was goaltending, tying the score, but it was overturned after a video review.

The 76ers controlled the ensuing jump ball but ran out of time for a shot.

The game pitted a pair of teams that have their eyes on the NBA title. The Bucks broke a long title drought last season, earning the franchise’s second title after winning their first in 1971. Philadelphia last won a championship in 1983, and the 76ers added Harden at the trade deadline to bolster their chances of the franchise’s fourth title.

Milwaukee has been one of the NBA’s best teams since the All-Star break, going 11-4 as it gears up for another postseason run. Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said he doesn’t hear the Bucks enough when NBA title contenders are mentioned.

“I hear everybody but Milwaukee,” Rivers said. “They didn’t luck into winning.”

Embiid, among the frontrunners for MVP, got off to a slow start against the Bucks, missing six of his first seven shots. He warmed up down the stretch of the first half and helped the 76ers to a 61-51 lead at the break.

Antetokounmpo and Harden traded first-half highlights, with the Bucks star and two-time MVP dunking on Embiid with his left hand late in the first quarter before a thunderous, two-handed jam late in the second. Harden scored over Antetokounmpo with his trademark step-back 3 with 35.7 seconds left in the first and connected with Matisse Thybulle with a beautiful three-quarter court pass to set Thybulle up for an easy dunk.