As far as beating elite teams goes, it doesn't get much better than beating the team with the best record in the NBA.
The Sixers recorded their most impressive win of the season, beating the Bucks, 130-125, at Fiserv Forum on national TV Sunday afternoon.
There's been a lot made of the Sixers' inability to beat the Eastern Conference's best, but in just the seventh game with their new-look starting five, they put the league on notice.
The win not only improves the Sixers to 45-25, but with the Hornets' loss to the Heat, it clinches a playoff spot. More importantly, the victory keeps them in the driver's seat for the East's third seed.
Here are observations from the huge win:
• Well, this was certainly an interesting strategy by Brett Brown. Brown had Joel Embiid cover MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo — and Embiid did all he could. Embiid just gave the Greek Freak a ton of space, daring him to take threes. It worked better in the first half, but Antetokounmpo still scored a career-high 52 points and hit 3 of 8 from three. Still, it’s how you should play him. He’s going to get his. He's really freaking good.
Playing this way forces the Bucks’ role players to step up — which they can do — but it’s wise to let them bomb threes rather than allowing Antetokounmpo to do his thing driving to the basket.
Give Brown credit. It was an outside-the-box approach and it worked well early. Again, you're only going to keep a player like Antetokounmpo contained for so long, though I thought Brown got away from the strategy too often in the second half.
• While Brown appears to have found the personnel for his rotation, he’s still sorting who to play with who.
We got another look at the Embiid-Ben Simmons pairing and the Jimmy Butler-Tobias Harris pairing. The Simmons-Embiid-led unit has taken its lumps, while Butler and Harris played with the bench trio of Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott and T.J. McConnell.
• There were a few undisciplined moments that were concerning when you’re going up against a team with the best record in the NBA.
The Sixers played a tremendous first quarter, but it ended on a sour note. With just a second remaining, Antetokounmpo grabbed a defensive rebound and pushed the ball to half court for a desperation heave. For some insane reason, McConnell reached in and fouled him. You don’t foul anyone taking a heave, let alone a guy who’s not a great outside shooter.
Most of the eight turnovers in the first half were of the unforced variety. It’s something the team needs to be more cognizant of in general, but especially against a team the caliber of the Bucks. They did a better job with just five turnovers after halftime.
• While Embiid likely has no chance at MVP, this was yet another game that demonstrated how valuable he is to the Sixers. How many seven-foot centers would you trust to put on a player like Antetokounmpo? Probably none other than Embiid.
He got off to a slow start offensively and settled for way too many threes, going 4 of 13 — he did, however, hit an enormous three with under a minute to go. When he put the ball on the floor, he found more success. There was one play in which he crossed up Antetokounmpo and had a beautiful finish on a floater along the baseline.
Again, the chances of him winning the MVP are slim, but he put on a show against one of the favorites for the award on national TV. He finished with 40 points (15 of 31), 15 rebounds and six assists. He also added three steals and a block.
• JJ Redick was sensational. He broke a Sixers franchise record with his 198th made three in the first half. There really wasn’t much Milwaukee could do. It was just one of those games where Redick was hitting everything — threes off screens, pull-up mid-range jumpers, off-balance shots of all kinds.
He poured in 19 points on 7 of 10 and a perfect 4 of 4 from three and was a thorn in the Bucks’ side all day. It's clear his post-All-Star break slump is well behind him.
• Simmons struggled to score with Antetokounmpo on him, but was efficient, going 4 of 8 for eight points.
He did have this ridiculous dunk on Brook Lopez though.
THIS WAS STRAIGHT UP DISRESPECTFUL, BEN. pic.twitter.com/NKJDmMe2As— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) March 17, 2019
Simmons was OK overall (nine rebounds, nine assists), but Simmons struggling to score against good defensive teams continues to be an issue. He still provides strong defense and you have to hope the Sixers' abundance of firepower will help mitigate that.
• It appears we can put the "Jimmy Butler defers too much" narrative to rest for now. Butler took plenty of shots, going 8 of 16 for 27 points. He wasn't spectacular offensively early, but Butler the closer was huge down the stretch.
Defensively, this was the second game in a row he was a difference maker, getting three steals, but more importantly his activity level was high and he's looked better and better as an on-the-ball defender.
• Harris was quiet in this one, going just 4 of 7 for 12 points, but let's not start a "Tobias Harris defers too much" narrative. The beauty of the Sixers' new starting five is the unselfishness of the group. They all know Embiid is their best player so naturally he's going to put up a ton of shots. But on Sunday, Redick had it going so the other three starters played a lesser role. This is the way it's going to be when you have this much offensive talent. It's a wonderful problem to have.
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