Echoes of ’74: Giannis, Bucks clinch best record

PHILADELPHIA — The last time the Milwaukee Bucks ended the regular season with the NBA’s best record, they also had the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

Forty-five years later, history might be about to repeat itself.

Thanks to the latest spectacular performance from Giannis Antetokounmpo — who finished with 45 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and five blocks in 35 minutes — the Bucks beat the Philadelphia 76ers 128-122 in front of a sellout crowd at Wells Fargo Center. The victory clinched the best record and home-court advantage throughout the upcoming NBA playoffs for the Bucks for the first time since 1974 — when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar claimed the third of six MVP awards in his career.

With his performance Thursday night, Antetokounmpo not only carried Milwaukee to a win — in a game in which fellow All-Star Khris Middleton was limited to 25 minutes coming off a groin injury and guard Eric Bledsoe was ejected less than three minutes in following an altercation with 76ers star Joel Embiid — but might also have taken a large step toward claiming the first MVP award of his career.

“I think the team did a great job keeping its composure,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously [Bledsoe] went to the locker room in the first quarter, but everybody stepped up. Guys came in, hit big shots, played defense, played hard, and it’s big for us. A lot of guys are missing … it just feels good that we have 12 guys, 15 guys that are able on any given night to step up and help this team.”

None of them, though, do so quite like Antetokounmpo can — and like he did Thursday night in locking up the top seed in the East for his team.

“Yeah, that felt like a statement,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Especially with what he does defensively with the five blocks and 13 rebounds and changes the game … finishing and making free throws.

“He’s an MVP in our eyes, so we’ll keep him,” he added with a laugh.

Antetokounmpo certainly played like it in this one, dominating at both ends even as the Bucks were playing not only without Bledsoe for most of the night, but also starter Malcolm Brogdon and key reserve Nikola Mirotic, who remain out with long-term injuries. And while Philadelphia was without Jimmy Butler, who sat with back spasms, the Sixers maintained a lead for much of the second half.

But it was Milwaukee that closed the game out with a 15-4 run over the final 2:53 to get the win — one that included seven points on three straight baskets by George Hill (the last of which was a fast break layup assisted by Antetokounmpo), followed by Antetokounmpo getting a massive block of an Embiid drive and then starting another fast break that resulted in a Sterling Brown layup that put the game away for Milwaukee.

“It was a good win,” Hill said. “Any time you’re playing one of the playoff teams, the environment is going to be hostile — especially on their home court. That’s a really good ball team over there. So it’s good to find ways to win when you may not be playing well, you may not be making shots, with everyone digging deep and finding ways to win.”

Now the Bucks have three more games left to try to get to 60 wins for just the fifth time in franchise history, and three more games for Antetokounmpo to impress voters for the league’s MVP award that he should be their choice.

“I don’t like talking about myself, talking about the MVP,” Antetokounmpo said. “As I have said in the past, if you keep winning, it will take care of itself.”

Like he has so many times this season, Antetokounmpo made sure the Bucks won again Thursday night.

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