The Sixers and Bucks might be the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. That fact alone doesn’t make for a meaningful rivalry.
Despite dropping three of its last five games, Philadelphia (22-10) remains one of the top dogs in the East and expectations on a potential trip to the NBA Finals may decide Brett Brown’s future.
Make no mistake, the Sixers would consider anything short of their “ultimate goal” a failed season. The Milwaukee Bucks (27-4) are the largest obstacle standing in their way.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is enjoying another MVP-caliber year and his team has controlled the series over the past two years. The Bucks hold a 4-3 advantage in head-to-head matchups since 2018. Antetokounmpo is averaging 31 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists for the year —— and totaled 129 points on 55.6 percent shooting versus the Sixers in three games last season.
There is a short history and budding competitiveness between these two teams but it hasn’t achieved rivalry status. Not according to Joel Embiid.
“No,” Embiid said when asked if Sixers-Bucks was a rivalry game. “We haven’t played them in the postseason or anything for that to be called a rivalry. We’re just playing basketball and trying to get wins.”
Teammate Tobias Harris agreed.
“If you want it to be a rivalry, you can take it,” Harris said.
The Sixers are riding a two-game winning streak into their Christmas Day contest against Milwaukee, while the Bucks are riding a three-game winning streak that includes an impressive win over the Lakers. Embiid is averaging 23 points, 12.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks — and has averaged 29 points and 12.8 rebounds per game in six contests versus Milwaukee.
“They are really deep, got a bunch of shooters — and, obviously, the big guy [Giannis Antetokounmpo], he’s really good so they are hard to guard,” Embiid said. “They all contribute, one through 15, so they got a bunch of guys that can play, that can come in at any time and make plays.”
Then, in perfect Embiid fashion, he spits some truth.
“They’re beatable. They have a lot of wins and you got to take it game by game,” he said last week after practice. “We have a bunch of games before that so that’s what I’m focused on.”
The Bucks and Sixers play on Christmas Day at 2:30 p.m. on ABC. Tune in.
Bucks in for Rowdy Home Crowd in Philadelphia
The Sixers are 15-2 in the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center. They had been 14-0 before dropping back-to-back games to the Heat and Mavericks on Dec. 18 and Dec. 20.
There is no denying the crazed effect the Philly faithful has on the team. They feed off the energy and take on the blue-collar identity of the town. Turnovers are significantly down at home versus the road, while rebounds go up from 44.5 to 47.5. And their defensive intensity goes through the roof.
“I think our defense goes to another place in Philadelphia and it especially goes to another place in the last four minutes in Philadelphia,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “I’m not sure if you can back that up with metrics, it’s certainly a head coach’s gut feel and it’s a great city to play in. This city has an edge and there is a hardness in this city and we feel it in the arena. And I really feel it and see it with our defense.”
Players who have played in other cities always talk about the advantage the Sixers have on their home floor, in front of those Rocky rousers. Philadelphia has gone 76-23 at home over the past three seasons. Backup center Kyle O’Quinn knows the feeling having played in Philly as an opponent for three different teams.
“I see why on this side and I also know why from the other side. It’s a tough place to come play at Wells [Fargo Center],” O’Quinn said. “Philadelphia is one of those cities where you might go have a great meal, in the good restaurants, and you’re not ready for the first-quarter pressure.”
Sixers All-Star Joel Embiid credited the city’s trademark toughness, an intangible game-changer.
“It’s just the city, the city of Philadelphia. I love the fans,” he said. “There’s a different toughness about the city that they [Sixers fans] bring every single night. It’s a full house every single night, so you want to go out and play hard like you should every night.”