Philadelphia 76ers

76ers were their best selves in Christmas Day win over the Bucks

In a Christmas Day win over the Milwaukee Bucks the Philadelphia 76ers performed like the title contender they’ve mostly just been on paper.

The 76ers came into this season with some key rotation changes — Al Horford and Josh Richardson in, Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick out — and championship aspirations. A 22-10 start looks good on paper, but coming into Christmas Day at fifth in the Eastern Conference, with just the 10th-best point differential in the league, is more representative of a contender still struggling to put all the pieces together.

While their defense has been stout as usual, their offense had withered at times, stifled by a lack of shooting and resultant spacing for Joel Embiid in the post and driving lanes for Ben Simmons. Coming into their Christmas Day matchup with the Bucks and their league-best record, the 76ers had been scoring points at a rate of 109.0 points per 100 possessions, the 14th-best mark in the league.

But the team that showed up for the Bucks looked like the best version of themselves.

Philadelphia scored 121 points on 114 offensive possessions, against the league’s best defense, led by Embiid’s 31. He was a monster at both ends, pounding the ball in the post, draining 3-pointers on the secondary break and taking the Lopez twins off the dribble when the opening presented itself.

But the 76ers looked like a juggernaut in this game because of the way the rest of the supporting cast showed up. Richardson and Tobias Harris, who had been shooting just 33.7 percent on 3-pointers, combined to hit 9-of-18 against Milwaukee. Furkan Korkmaz went 4-of-5 on 3-pointers off the bench, Simmons was aggressive pushing the ball and totaling 14 assists and all six players finished with double-figures.

Going 21-of-44 on 3-pointers is probably not a result the 76ers can reliably depend on in the playoffs but there is a lot of distance between that mark and where they have been to this point in the regular season. In that middle ground there is plenty of room for Simmons to pick apart a defense off the dribble and Embiid to have his way with defenders both big and small.

Nearly as impressive as Philadelphia’s offensive showing was their defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo. They held the MVP front-runner to 18 points on 8-of-27 shooting, including just 6-of-17 inside the paint. The Celtics stole Game 1 of their playoff series with the Bucks last season by repeatedly putting Al Horford on Giannis and packing the paint with bodies to stymie his drives. Both Philadelphia bigs, as well as their wing defenders, had a hand in slowing down Giannis on Christmas. It may not prove to be a panacea in a playoff matchup against Milwaukee but it at least gives Philadelphia a strategic wrinkle to try.

There is still plenty of basketball to be played in the regular season and this loss certainly doesn’t knock the Bucks off the pedestal of presumptive title favorite, statistically speaking. But it gives Philadelphia some much-needed momentum and shows how much trouble they can be when shots are falling.

Next: What to get your favorite NBA player for Christmas

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