MILWAUKEE – It was billed as a litmus test.
Call it a solid indicator of the new-look 76ers being an elite team.
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The Sixers got out to an early lead on the Milwaukee Bucks en route to posting an eye-opening 130-125 victory at the Fiserv Forum.
“There’s a lot that went into the game,” Joel Embiid said. “The last time we were here, they beat us pretty bad. They’re the best in the NBA right now as far as record goes. Number one in our conference and I felt like we had to make a statement.”
The victory definitely put teams on notice. It also enabled the Sixers (45-25) to clinch a playoff berth with 12 games remaining.
Philly also evened its season series, 1-1, against the Eastern Conference and NBA-leading Bucks (52-18). The teams will have their third and final regular-season meeting on April 4 at the Wells Fargo Center.
But before Sunday, the visiting squad was an NBA enigma. It had been hard to gauge how much the Sixers had improved after several roster-altering trades since the Bucks defeated them, 123-108, here on Oct. 24.
All you need to know is that Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid, JJ Redick, and Ben Simmons lived up to their label as the league’s second-best starting lineup behind the Golden State Warriors.
“We’re here to compete,” said Simmons, regarding what the victory revealed about the new-look Sixers. “We can compete with the best. I think [general manager Elton Brand] has done a great job of putting us all together. Obviously, coach [Brett] Brown and the coaching staff are going a good job. It’s fun."
Embiid finished with 40 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals. 1 block and just 1 turnover. Eighteen of his points came in the fourth quarter. Butler, acquired in a November trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves, added 27 points, scoring 14 in the final quarter. Redick had 19 points, making all four of his three-point shots. Simmons finished with 8 points, 9 assists and 9 rebounds.
Harris, taking just 7 shots, finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. The power forward, along with Mike Scott (6 points) and Boban Marjanovic (6 points), were acquired in a Feb. 7 trade from the Los Angeles Clippers.
“I think we got so many guys that can score the ball so many different ways that on any given night somebody is going to get hot," Butler said. “You are not going to be able to guard everybody.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo led all scorers with a career-high 52 points, scoring 35 of the Bucks’ 72 points in the second half. The three-time All-Star yelled an expletive at Simmons after dunking on him and staring him down the Sixers with 1 minute, 18 seconds left in the game.
After being fouled on the play, Antetokounmpo yelled that Simmons is “a baby, a [freaking] baby.”
The Sixers point guard responded by dunking on Antetokounmpo and staring him down on the next play.
Simmons and Embiid both took turns guarding the MVP candidate. Antetokounmpo commented on his comfort level with Simmons guarding him as opposed to Embiid.
“It’s easy,” he said. “I’d rather have Ben guard me than Joel, it’s simple. If Joel is guarding me all night, everything is so tough for you. But when someone else switches, whether it’s Jimmy or Ben or Scott or Marjanovic, it’s way easier and you just try to seize the opportunity and make a play.”
Simmons, however, enjoyed the challenge that guarding Antetokoumpo presented.
“He’s the main guy on their team,” Simmons said. “Obviously, he’s a tremendous player. I love taking the challenge of guarding someone like that.”
Simmons and Embiid were also heckled late in the game by a fan seated across from the Sixers bench. Arena security looked into the matter to see if the fan crossed the line.
“We were just talking,” Simmons said of his interaction with the fan. “He was around kids. I just found him just being an idiot [with his language], especially when you are around kids. You are supposed to be a role model.”
Much has changed on the court since the Sixers’ loss to the Bucks five months ago.
Back then, the Sixers rolled out a starting lineup of Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Embiid, Markelle Fultz, and Simmons. Redick was the sixth man and Landry Shamet was his promising rookie understudy.
These days, Covington and Saric have been replaced by Butler and Harris. The Sixers elevated Redick into his rightful place as the starting shooting guard and dispensed with the major distraction that was Fultz. Shamet, part of the Harris trade, is excelling with the Clippers. And the All-Star duo of Simmons and Embiid are co-existing better.
The Sixers had a commanding 13-point cushion with 3:07 remaining. The Bucks pulled within four points with 56.4 seconds to play. However, Embiid answered with a three-pointer to give the Sixers a 123-116 lead with 35.6 seconds left. Butler (three), Embiid (two), and Harris (two) went on make seven foul shots to give the Sixers the five-point win.
“This [win] means that we are going to be ready,” Embiid said. “We are ready. We got so much more to do. We got to still learn how to play with each other. ... We got 12 games to make sure we are all on the same page, and tonight we were all on the same page.”
This marked just the seventh game that all five starters have played together. Embiid had missed eight games with tendinitis in his left knee. Butler sat out one game to rest.