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Sixers head to Milwaukee in showdown of MVP candidates

These teams put on quite the show four weeks ago.

Philadelphia 76ers v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Over the next three days, the Philadelphia 76ers square off against the only two teams in the league with better records than their 51-26 mark. That starts Sunday, as they enter Fiserv Forum for a Sunday night showdown with the 55-22 Milwaukee Bucks.

The Sixers are third in the East, 2.5 games back of the 54-24, second-seeded Boston Celtics. They rank fourth in net rating (plus-4.7), fourth in offensive rating (118.4) and ninth in defensive rating (113.7). Since opening the year 12-12, they’re 39-14 with the NBA’s top offense, second-best net rating and 14th-ranked defense.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are atop the East and 2.5 games clear of Boston. They rank fifth in net rating (plus-4.5), 14th in offensive rating (115.7) and second in defensive rating (111.1). Since Khris Middleton returned on Jan. 23, they’re 26-5 with the league’s top net rating, fourth-best offense and fourth-best defense.

Injury-wise, Mac McClung, Jaden Springer and Louis King are all on assignment in the G League. Nobody else is mentioned on the injury report for Philadelphia. Jevon Carter (left knee soreness) is questionable. Meyers Leonard (left calf soreness) is out. Thanasis Antetokounmpo is serving a one-game suspension after his altercation with Blake Griffin late in Milwaukee’s blowout loss to the Celtics on Thursday.

Perhaps the biggest difference between last month’s Bucks-Sixers contest and Sunday’s is Middleton’s return to the starting lineup. When these teams met a month ago, he was still coming off the bench and struggled on both ends when Philadelphia won that game. He was a liability defending in space and shot 2-of-8 from the floor in 27 minutes. Over his past 10 games, all of which he’s started, he’s averaging 20 points on 59.1 percent true shooting. I imagine some combination of P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, Jalen McDaniels and Danuel House Jr. (if he receives minutes) spend the majority of the time wrangling with Middleton.

While Milwaukee is among the foremost defenses in the NBA, the Sixers have been quite dominant offensively in their two wins against the Bucks this season. In those two victories, they’ve generated an offensive rating of 122.7. With the way the Bucks elect to stay home against shooters and typically play single coverage on James Harden and Joel Embiid, that duo’s enjoyed considerable space to operate and reaped the rewards.

Embiid headlined the initial win, thriving in the clutch and dropping 32 points, 11 rebounds, eight dimes and three blocks. Harden starred in the encore behind 38 points, 10 assists (two turnovers) and nine boards. He repeatedly exploited some of Milwaukee’s shaky perimeter defenders, such as Middleton, Joe Ingles and Grayson Allen. In the ensuing eight games he’s played since, he’s been rather choppy, so it’ll be worth monitoring how he fares Sunday, especially coming off his best game of late on Friday.

Although he’s yet to steal the thunder from Embiid or Harden, Tyrese Maxey’s been sensational in this matchup. Through three games against the Bucks, he’s averaging 21.7 points on 73.1 percent true shooting. His blend of intermediate touch, speed and shooting often overwhelm them on the perimeter, given some of their athletic deficiencies in space. He could help swing the result, much like he did on March 4 with 26 points on 8-of-12 shooting. I also anticipate him assuming the Jrue Holiday assignment, which is no easy task, but might enable him to showcase his recent defensive growth.

For all of the Sixers’ offensive exploits against the Bucks, the other side of the floor has been less prolific, surrendering a 117.2 defensive rating in three games this season. Handling Giannis Antetokounmpo is never simple. Embiid tends to roam as a helper and Brook Lopez feasted on that strategy last time, tallying 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting. Middleton’s return to form and Holiday’s shot-making prowess only intensify the complications. These clubs combined to shoot 35-of-71 beyond the arc in their last matchup, so maybe some regression turns this into a lower-scoring affair, though I wouldn’t bank on it.

On Friday, the Sixers trotted out a rangy, high-flying unit of Harden-Shake Milton-House-McDaniels-Reed. They were plus-11 in those nine minutes. The Toronto Raptors’ lack of interior size beyond Jakob Poeltl certainly aided Philadelphia’s success. But the athleticism, defense, cutting and finishing around Harden, as well as another ball-handler in Milton, made for a synergistic group. Milwaukee is much bigger inside and House might not see rotation minutes, yet I’m nonetheless curious if head coach Doc Rivers goes back to this group and if it’s similarly effective.

The Bucks and Sixers have made a habit of treating us to riveting games the past few seasons. Hopefully, that’s the case again Sunday. We’ll know in a handful of hours.

Game Details

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Milwaukee Bucks

When: 8:00 pm EST, Sunday, April 2

Where: Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee, WI

Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @LibertyBallers

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