Written by Andrew Leeds
Originally Published March 6, 2023
No matter which metric one would choose to use in order to gauge how Saturday night's game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks would pan out, every single one of them favored the home team. The Bucks had won 16 straight games going in to their matchup against the Sixers. They managed to go undefeated through the entire month of February, and had not surrendered defeat at home since January 6th.
The Sixers, on the other hand, were a mediocre 2-3 since returning from the All-Star break , albeit all five games were played against playoff teams. Regardless, the Sixers have the toughest remaining schedule in all of basketball over the last two months that remain of the regular season, and things were not going to get any easier facing the undisputedly hottest team in the league.
While the teams had split their two matches thus far this season, the recent history between these two teams are far more lopsided in the Bucks' direction. Giannis and company had won 14 of the last 20 games, and only two of their six losses came at home.
Giannis currently ranks above Joel Embiid in the NBA's official Most-Valuable Player ladder, and notoriously beat out James Harden in the 2018-19 season to win that same award despite Harden having a historically outstanding season on the offensive side of the ball.
Their was expected to be a lot of energy and fire coming from both squads in this one, and both teams delivered in-full, and unquestionably fit the billing of a true Saturday night primetime game that was filled to the brim with playoff-intensity.
While staying tight through the entire first half, the dreaded third quarter slump that has seemed to plague the Sixers for the last five seasons or so started to come to fruition. The Bucks took firm control of the game, extending their lead to 18 points with little over two-and-a-half minutes left to play in the third.
Despite looking bleak, the Sixers managed to close the gap thanks to a few clutch three-point jumpers from forward Georges Niang, who was only seeing the court at this point of the game because both starting forwards Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker having to leave the game early due to suffering injuries. Back-up big men Paul Reed and the recently acquired Jalen McDaniels also stepped up big time with their defense and rebounding, effectively shutting out Giannis for the majority of the final stretch of the game.
With the bench unit stepping up, it was all up to the Sixers' big three of Tyrese Maxey, James Harden, and Joel Embiid to rise to the occasion and put the game away.
And they delivered.
The Sixers outscored the Bucks by 14 points in the fourth quarter, scoring a total of 48 points, the most by any Sixers team in the final quarter of a game since 1972.
The three of them alone combined for 95 of the Sixers' 133 total points, with Harden shining in particular. He had his arguably best performance of his Sixers career so far with, scoring a Sixers-career high 38 points, dishing out10 assists, pulling in 9 rebounds, and shooting an efficient 5/9 from three-point land and a perfect 11-11 from the free-throw line.
Harden also drained the the three-pointer that pulled the Sixers within one point with a just over a minute and 20 seconds left in regulation. And after a stout defensive effort by Embiid and McDaniels on the aggressively dominant Antetokounmpo resulted in a missed short-range jumper, Harden assisted Embiid in a clutch three-pointer of his own to put the Sixers up by two with 42 seconds left to play, their first lead since midway through the second-quarter.
A few intentional free throws later, the Sixers had successfully closed out an impressive three-point victory over the Bucks on the road. A performance that stacks up along with the one over Memphis a couple weeks ago as one of the strongest team-wins for the 76ers over the last few seasons.
This is why, despite falling short against Boston last week, there is still plenty of reason to believe in this year's Sixers' squad. They have something here that none of the Sixers teams since the 2018-19 season have had, and the pairing of Joel Embiid and James Harden have proven themselves to be among the very best duos in the entire league.
And with Maxey starting to find his rhythm again since being reinserted into the starting lineup, the Sixers finally look like a team that should be considered a legitimate threat to make it past the second-round, and potentially even clinch a birth to their first NBA Finals appearance since Allen Iverson led the team there back in 2001.