Tonight is likely a game both teams circled on their calendars a while ago: the Milwaukee Bucks enter the Wells Fargo Center for an Eastern Conference heavyweight bought against the loathed Philadelphia 76ers. These two combatants are tied in the standings, which are VERY tightly packed at present. Thanks to a loss Celtics (who entered the day in first) loss in Toronto, the winner of this one will be in sole possession of second... for now!
The last time these two faced was their final tilt prior to the All-Star break, with the Sixers prevailing after a tight fourth quarter behind 42 points from MVP candidate Joel Embiid, who outdueled Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 32-point near-triple double. Notably, Jordan Nwora started that game for Milwaukee (and was actually good!) while the following Bucks were inactive due to injury: Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, George Hill, and Grayson Allen. Meanwhile, Philly lacked some guy with no track record of playoff success (look at the numbers: he’s just another guy!) who pouted his way off two franchises in barely over a year.
Where We’re At
Even after not being able to hit the broad side of Beale Street on Saturday night, remember that Milwaukee still took 10 of their last 14 since last facing Philadelphia. That includes an impressive beatdown of the collapsing Bulls and a summary dismissal of the Wizards within the last week. Fun fact: since the All-Star break, the Bucks lost all of their games on Saturdays while winning every other contest. Related good news: the Bucks don’t play on Saturdays for the rest of the regular season! While they’re close to a clean bill of health, minor injuries or illness kept a few key Bucks out of action recently. Fortunately, Jrue Holiday and Serge Ibaka are off the injury report after sitting in Memphis. Aside from DeAndre’ Bembry, the only other Buck listed is Giannis, who’s probable with his recently-troublesome right knee. Barring a late scratch, Milwaukee should have their starting lineup healthy for the first time since Opening Night.
National media darling Joel Embiid—some NBA voices are just dying to give the MVP to their perpetual pre-season favorite, especially after a mid-season injury cost him all but one first-place vote last year—and his Sixers hold a similar record to the Bucks since the break, albeit with a couple more games played. Last week, they managed to snatch one away from the reeling Heat before embarking on a brief Western Conference road trip, during which they swept both LA teams before losing to the Suns two days ago. Milwaukee will have its first look at James Harden on this Philly squad and while his free throw rate skyrocketed past its typical level post-trade (70.9%, maybe playing with Embiid helps), the brief honeymoon period is over: he’s shooting 35.4% from the field and 29.2% since his first four games as a Sixer on 14.4 shots per game. Doc Rivers will have his entire roster available, aside from two rookies and his two-way players on G League assignments.
The latest line on this one out of Vegas has the Bucks as two-point underdogs on the road
Player To Watch
There are several good storylines in this one, aside from the obvious Giannis/Embiid battle and what it means to the MVP race. How do (presumably) Holiday and Matthews fare as Harden’s main defenders? Can they keep him off the foul line as they did so well when facing another whistle-monger in DeMar DeRozan twice this month? At the same time, can they contain dangerous Sixers point guard Tyrese Maxey, who burned the Bucks badly early in the season? Will Bobby Portis break out of his shooting slump? As a team, can Milwaukee rebound from an extremely inaccurate night from the field on Saturday? While these are all compelling, none matters more to me than Brook Lopez’s defensive performance on Embiid. Lopez is one of very few centers in the East that can credibly guard Embiid, and if this is the year these two contenders finally meet in the postseason, they’ll need a sterling effort from their primary rim protector. Since returning from back surgery, Lopez hasn’t yet played more than 28 minutes, so keep an eye on his court time in this one.
Game 75: Against Philadelphia, the Bucks will…
This poll is closed
Win big (by 10 or more points)
Win close (by 9 or fewer points)
Lose close (by 9 or fewer points)
Lose big (by 10 or more points)
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