The Philadelphia 76ers’ streak continues. They’re up to six straight wins after their latest victory on Tuesday against the New York Knicks, as the Sixers prevailed after a slow start on offense to win, 99-96. Tobias Harris had a terrific performance with 30 points and some key buckets down the stretch, Ben Simmons had a solid game all around, and Seth Curry showed a quicker trigger to fire away from deep and added 20 points. As the Sixers’ offense heated up and their defense locked in, they won the fourth quarter, 26-14, to earn a well-fought win.
Now, they’re right back at it on Wednesday. Any back-to-back is a grind, and this one will be particularly tough for the Sixers. They have their first matchup of the season against the Milwaukee Bucks, who sit at 3rd place in the Eastern Conference at 25-14 after winning nine of their last 10 games.
Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t been a common name in MVP discussions this season, and he shouldn’t be one of the top candidates, but his numbers and impact have been similar to his MVP campaign last season. He’s averaging a monstrous 29 points, 11.7 rebounds, 6.2 assists per game, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Joel Embiid has always been incredibly valuable in matchups against Giannis in the past — whether Embiid is defending him and using his size, agility and strength to deter Giannis’s drives, or using those same strengths when hanging back to protect the rim while others guard Giannis.
Without Embiid, Simmons will have to try to contain Giannis, and the pressure will be on Dwight Howard and Tony Bradley to protect the rim. It’s a tall order, and a big test for a Sixers’ defense that’s ramped up lately and now ranks 2nd in the NBA. It’s also another chance for Simmons to make a statement in his campaign for Defensive Player of the Year, the only individual accolade Simmons has said he wants to pursue this season.
With Giannis leading the way at both ends of the floor and the Bucks’ ranking 2nd in offensive rating, they’ve earned the 2nd-best net rating in the league at +7.3. They rank 5th in made threes per game at 14.6 and 4th in percentage at 39, Khris Middleton is having another super efficient scoring season, and now they have another quality complementary creator at their disposal in Jrue Holiday.
While the Bucks’ defense has still been good, they’ve dropped off after having the NBA’s best defense last season and currently rank 10th. They’ve tried mixing up their drop-reliant defense somewhat by bringing up their bigs higher against more pick-and-rolls and using a bit more switching, but Brook Lopez hasn’t been as good this year and simply can’t be as effective shifting outside as when he’s dropping back at the rim. More varied coverages could help the Bucks have more options in the playoffs, but for now their defense hasn’t been quite the same. Nevertheless, without Embiid, the Sixers’ more perimeter-heavy offense will have a lot of highly talented defenders to overcome. From Giannis guarding on the ball and providing elite help defense at the rim, to Holiday, to Donte DiVincenzo.
Simmons and Harris will have to continue their aggressive play, and using Simmons as a screener in both pick-and-rolls and dribble hand-offs could be a helpful counter for when his defender sags off or the Bucks simply have Lopez dropping farther back into the paint, allowing ball-handlers to attack off screens into space.
This game would be a challenge for the Sixers even if they had Embiid and weren’t playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Without Embiid’s presence in the paint at both ends of the floor and the Bucks’ collection of creation and three-point shooting, the Sixers could easily be outmatched in this game. If they can find a way to win, it would easily be one of their best victories of the season.
Who: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Philadelphia 76ers
When: 7:00 pm ET, Wednesday, March 17th
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic