Down 18 points Saturday night at Fiserv Forum with under 15 minutes left, the Sixers battled back to end the Bucks' 16-game winning streak and earn their best win of the season.
James Harden posted his most points as a Sixer, scoring 38 in a 133-130 victory. He also had 10 assists and nine rebounds.
Joel Embiid notched 31 points and 10 assists. Tyrese Maxey scored 26 points on 8-for-12 shooting.
The Sixers' other two starters, Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker, exited early with injuries (more on that below).
Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo had 34 points and 13 rebounds.
Milwaukee still holds a four-game lead over the 41-22 Sixers, who sit third in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Sixers will finish their five-game road trip with a back-to-back —against the Pacers on Monday night and against the Timberwolves on Tuesday. Here are observations on their incredible win in Milwaukee:
Not a full look at the starters
The game’s opening 25 seconds or so were ominous for the Sixers.
Antetokounmpo pulled down a defensive rebound and menacingly chewed up ground before making a long-striding layup. He later sprinted ahead, collapsed the Sixers’ defense, and kicked the ball out to Jrue Holiday for a three that gave Milwaukee a 7-2 lead. Soon enough, the Sixers gained a bit of stability as Embiid drilled a three-pointer and Maxey hit a floater.
PJ Tucker vs. Antetokounmpo was the initial matchup on both ends in the half court. Though Tucker couldn’t make Antetokounmpo pay for leaving him open to take a couple of early corner threes, he became the fifth Sixers starter to score when Embiid found him for a cutting hoop. Embiid was sensible and selfless offensively in the early going, recording four first-quarter assists.
Harden had a second straight hot-shooting start; he knocked down two threes in his opening run, including a long one late in the shot clock. The 33-year-old smartly set himself up for the first one by asking Embiid to re-screen and then dribbling into a smooth pull-up jumper with Brook Lopez in his usual drop coverage.
It wasn’t surprising to see, but the Sixers’ starters looked perfectly capable of being very competitive against the NBA’s top team record-wise.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, their full-strength squad was not available for the whole game. The team ruled Tobias Harris out at halftime because of left calf soreness. Harris injured his left calf in the fourth quarter of the Sixers’ loss Monday to the Heat, but he returned to that game and suited up for the next three. Clearly, the Sixers want Harris as healthy as possible for the playoffs and there’s no point in him gritting through an injury during the regular season.
The same is true for Tucker, who was ruled out with back spasms late in the third quarter.
Sixers fall into a serious hole
The Bucks went on an 8-0 run late in the first quarter to take a 25-22 edge.
Bobby Portis scored seven quick points, Jevon Carter and Jae Crowder played physical defense on the ball, and Milwaukee’s second unit generally appeared a tier or two above the Sixers’ in the first half. Georges Niang was an obvious weak spot defensively, though he ultimately rediscovered his shooting stroke in a big way, hitting 5 of his 6 threes. The Sixers’ rotation did not include Danuel House Jr., who’d gone 31 minutes back on Nov. 18 in a shorthanded Sixers win over Milwaukee. Shake Milton was the Sixers’ 10th man to play Saturday and received nine second-half minutes.
Dewayne Dedmon was available to make his Sixers debut after sitting out the last five games with a left hip injury, but head coach Doc Rivers stuck with Paul Reed. Antetokounmpo essentially served as the Bucks’ backup center and gave Reed a tough time, scoring inside twice in the first minute of the second quarter. The two-time MVP also troubled Harden defensively in the second. He played smothering isolation defense on one possession, mirroring Harden and eventually stealing the ball from him. On the Sixers' next play, he blocked a Harden layup try. Harden shot just 2 for 9 from the field in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, Maxey handled Milwaukee’s physicality well and went 6 for 6 from the foul line in the first half. The Sixers don’t want Maxey to excessively seek whistles, but it’s always positive when he drives hard, gains an initial advantage off the dribble, and invites contact.
Maxey opened the third quarter nicely, hitting a couple of jumpers, but the Sixers’ defense couldn’t sustain any success. Grayson Allen caught fire and made both inexcusably wide-open and tightly guarded threes during a quarter in which he poured in 20 points. His corner three with 2:41 left in the third gave the Bucks a 95-77 lead and the Sixers’ chances of victory were quite slim on paper.
Just like in Thursday’s loss to the Mavs, the Sixers had an improbably excellent start to the fourth quarter.
Harden ran the show in a lineup with four bench players and assisted two threes by Niang. After a put-back, and-one Reed layup, the Sixers suddenly were on a 9-0 run. It’s impossible to quantify, but Reed’s moxie has shined several times in matchups against elite opponents. Even when his night is trending downhill, he’ll pull down an important offensive rebound, score a key bucket, or add something else valuable. The Sixers wound up a plus-8 in Reed’s nine minutes and a minus-seven in Embiid’s 37.
Niang is similarly undeterred by recent failures and full of belief in his game. He canned a three to tie the game at 108-all. Jalen McDaniels also closed Saturday night and posted five crucial points late — three free throws following an Antetokounmpo foul and a put-back dunk off of an Embiid mid-range miss.
Antetokounmpo scored Milwaukee’s first 12 points of the fourth quarter. Forcing the ball from his hands is the right play, but that’s not always going to yield a satisfying result. Lopez, who scored 26 points and played an excellent all-around game, made a triple to give the Bucks a 116-110 edge.
The Sixers’ role players deserve recognition, but the final minutes boiled down to the team’s stars accessing their top gear. Harden passed Ray Allen for 25th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list during his huge quarter. He drew seven free throws in the period and made all of them.
However, he wasn’t reliant on foul calls because he still had burst on his drives and still possessed the energy to drain clutch jumpers. Zooming out, it’s very encouraging that Harden's improved health compared to last season has coincided with major improvement in both of those areas. With the shot clock expiring, he cut Milwaukee’s lead to 125-124 on a jumper from over 30 feet out. Next time down, he drove and kicked the ball out to Embiid for a go-ahead three with 42 seconds remaining.
Holiday (26 points, 13 assists) missed a three on the ensuing possession, Maxey grabbed the defensive board, and the Sixers were on their way to a stirring, star-driven victory. They’re now up 2-1 in the season series against the Bucks and will visit Milwaukee again on April 2.