After a postseason run that ended in disappointment, the Sixers weren’t shy about their expectations for this season.

They saw some roster upheaval, but GM Elton Brand and head coach Brett Brown stayed on message about wanting to capture an NBA title. Returning players and newcomers didn’t shy away from those championship aspirations at media day.

Though they’ve struggled with consistency to start the 2019-20 season, a win like Wednesday’s convincing one over the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks (see observations) is an example of what everyone had in mind.

“Obviously playing the best team in the league so we came out, we showed that through our ups and downs, we showed that we're right there,” Joel Embiid said. “We still got a long way to go obviously, but we're right there and we're going to keep on getting better.”

The Sixers now sit at 23-10, still 4 ½ games behind the Bucks.

But we’ve seen what this team can do when all the pieces work the way they’re supposed to — when Embiid is dominating, Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson and Al Horford are spacing the floor and Ben Simmons is putting pressure on defenses in transition. Though they trail Milwaukee, Boston and Miami in the standings, they’re a combined 4-1 against those teams.

With such large expectations, sometimes it feels like every game can be a referendum on the team. The reality is that while this team has its flaws, they’re built to play a different brand of basketball when it counts.

 

I think this team is designed for the playoffs,” Brown said. “I believe that the road that we have traveled so far has been a little bit erratic at times. Whether it's the infrequency of our five players playing together, it's still less than half the season we've had them. Whether it's navigating through some zone, at times some lost leads. It's like you're under a microscope trying to move this team forward and trying to get it whole and improve it. But I think the landing spot is exciting.

Hitting a season-high 21 threes Wednesday certainly helped, but this team’s “bread is buttered” on the defensive end, as Brown is fond of saying. 

The “bully ball” brand of defense he’d talked about back in September has come to fruition. Though their inconsistencies have led to them being eighth in the league in defensive rating, they lead the NBA in rebounding percentage and are second in steals and seventh in blocks per game.

They also allow the fewest makes and attempts from three. Against a team like Milwaukee, which takes and makes the third-most threes in the NBA, it was a huge benefit. The Bucks hit 13 of 33, but it took a 5-of-7 fourth quarter — after being down as many as 29 — to get there.

Not enough can be said about the job Embiid and the Sixers did on reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak struggled, going just 8 of 27 overall, his worst shooting performance of the season.

It undoubtedly was the key to Wednesday’s win.

“For us, it starts on defense,” Simmons said. “Coming into the game, we knew they had a great offensive team in terms of Giannis and a lot of shooters around him. Trying to take the ball out of his hands and limit three-pointers. And then offense usually just flows from that.”

Embiid has been a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year in the past. Simmons stated that was his only individual goal for the season.

But apparently everybody wants in on it.

“I mean, [Tobias] wants it, too,” Simmons said. “But I want it. And J-Rich wants it. So hopefully we all keep that mentality.”

A game like Wednesday’s is proof that when the Sixers are engaged defensively and shooting confidently, they can beat anyone in the NBA.

“Yeah, we knew that already though,” Harris said.

Was this game a little more proof?

No, we knew that. We were just talking about it — we can play with the best of them, but we’ve also fooled around in a couple of games with some of the worst of the teams. I think it’s that level, like Ben just said, of us knowing what we can do, especially when we’re locked in and we’re in tune and focused as a team. We have to play with the same type of energy when we’re on the road playing whoever. I think for us as a group, it’s maintaining that level of play and that consistency night in, night out, and understanding how good we can be as a team and trying to really thrive from there.

 

It's a nice December win, but the Sixers were built for something bigger — and they looked the part on Christmas.

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