Very few opponents get the blood up like the Philadelphia 76ers.
Long twinned with the Milwaukee Bucks as two franchises clawing their own ways out of stultifying mediocrity through accumulation of promising talent, that both teams have reached the apex of their status as contenders within the same window only adds to the rivalry’s zest. Each team lays claim to a sport-altering superstar, each demands acknowledgement of their prowess, and each harbors as-yet unfulfilled desires to bring their respective redemptive arcs to the most satisfying conclusion of all: With a championship.
I could sit here and tell you that this game is Very Important because Philadelphia has one of the most physically imposing rosters in the league and present a unique puzzle for Milwaukee’s offense to solve. I could say that it will be Very Important because it’s another potential data point for us to consider as we keep an eye on any possible playoff matchup with heftier stakes. Hell, I could base this entire article on simply the duel between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid.
But those aren’t reasons why this is a Very Important game. There’s one far more compelling than any other:
Best Served Cold
Remember that gaping pit at the bottom of your stomach you were forced to endure on Christmas Day 2019? You know, that queasy feeling you suppressed when Grandma handed you a homemade cookie and quipped, “Jeez, grandchild, I thought you said the Bucks were good? Look like the same old losers to me!”
Internalize that moment as we look forward to Thursday evening.
Disregard the Sixers based on their wishy-washy record at your own peril; nothing has been definitively decided between these teams. They split the last four meetings two apiece, each owning a relative blowout and a grinding skin-of-their-teeth win, with plenty of accusations of infant-like behavior, braggadocios self-crowning, and physical tussles in-between.
It’s as close to a living breathing rivalry the Bucks have with any team in the Eastern Conference. Win here and that niggling early-season asterisk goes away.
Fire & Fire - Giannis & Joel
This right here? This is the reason we tune in to watch basketball: Two (literal) giants dueling for even momentary supremacy over the other — both capable of tearing a game wide open at any moment.
If their individual statistics aren’t enough to wow you, it helps to know that they’ve lived up to expectations in their six meetings since 2017. I mean, just look at these head-to-head averages:
Giannis v. Embiid Averages
Beyond the direct clash you can’t help but appreciate what it is Embiid embodies out on the floor and why he throws such a wrench into Milwaukee’s gameplans. He’s gigantic and perfectly happy to absorb every pound of force Giannis throws around trying to get to the paint. He’s a decent shooter (.321 from three this season with a .242 3PAr) and lures his defender just a tiny bit his way, enough to expose a gap in Milwaukee’s normal drop-scheme. When he wants to he can force his way into great position offensively like a knife at an opponent’s proverbial throats.
For everything Giannis is — high-flying, a prowling, pouncing, defensive menace, fiery on the court and humble off it — Joel is his antithesis. They were meant to be each others’ foil.
The Other Guys
And if all that wasn’t enough there’s plenty else on offer past the top billing. Khris Middleton continues to look the part of a true co-star over the past 10 games (25.5 pts on .629/.633/.889 shooting, 6.3 rebs, and 4.8 assists) and Eric Bledsoe was unavailable for the Christmas Day massacre so his presence offers a potentially new dynamic.
Ben Simmons, allergic as he is to shots further than five feet from the basket, is still a dynamo in a motion offense or in transition while remaining a jack-of-all trades on defense (opponents shoot 5.2 percentage points worse on average when Simmons guards them). Tobias Harris returns to Milwaukee all these years after a trade deadline deal saw him head to Orlando in the first step on a path that has led him to a max contract and a crucial spot as Philly’s sole traditional iso creator on an offense bereft of reliable outside shooting. Without Josh Richardson in the fold due to a hamstring injury, rookie 3&D phenom Matisse Thybulle will likely get a call off the bench as the plug-and-play defender if someone like Middleton catches fire.
Not to mention guys like Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz, and Mike Scott; each with weaknesses, but each with a record of wrecking their own form of havoc any given night.
So ignore the road record, ignore the seeding implications, ignore the chatter about trade deadlines and buyout markets. We’re faced with a rare opportunity in the modern NBA: To see two very good teams who don’t like each other square up in another installment of a grinding series of exchanges. The season won’t be on the line, but pride in what this Bucks team has accomplished will find singular validation with a victory over one of only seven teams who can legitimately argue they’ve bested the cream of the NBA’s crop. Seems pretty Important to me. You can grab your tickets through this Stubhub link.
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