The 76ers will head to Milwaukee for a nationally televised game Saturday night against the Bucks with some momentum, albeit all from home wins.
They have won four in a row, all at the Wells Fargo Center, the latest being Thursday’s 112-104 overtime win over the Brooklyn Nets. This improved the Sixers to an NBA-best 26-2 at home. Of course, they are 9-19 on the road, where they have lost their last five.
Saturday, they will take on a Bucks team that is 47-8 overall and 25-3 at home.
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Embiid has spent a good part of this season without showing his trademark smile. He has talked several times about not having as much fun.
His play has been up and down — graded on the curve of being a three-time All-Star — although lately it’s been up and Thursday it zoomed to the top. He had 39 points and 16 rebounds and, on a night fellow All-Star Ben Simmons was sidelined with lower back tightness, willed the Sixers to victory.
Afterward, he talked about enjoying himself more on the court.
“Having fun means a lot of things,” Embiid said.
Getting 39 and 16 probably qualifies as fun.
“This year, I have not been smiling as much as previous years. That doesn’t mean I am not having fun," he said.
Still, he has told the media several times that he wasn’t having as much fun this season.
“I feel the first part of the season I was trying to make sure everybody was comfortable,” he said. “I took a step back.”
And then he took several steps forward, looking to be more assertive. A prime example is Thursday’s game, in which he got to the foul line often and went 18-for-19 in free throws.
“If we are going to go somewhere, I got to be one of the guys, and it starts on defense," he said. "Just play hard and run in the flow, do the little things.”
Embiid also does plenty of big things. Against the Nets, he also had two blocked shots, two assists and two steals. On the negative side, he had five turnovers.
Embiid feels the recent turning point came the game before the All-Star break, a 110-103 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers. Despite being in foul trouble, he had 26 points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes and 10 seconds.
He said at the All-Star game, in which he had 22 points and 10 rebounds, the fun was really happening.
“The game against the Clippers was a good starting spot,” he said. “The All-Star Game just proved I am here, I belong, and being the best player in the world.”
When he is on his game, that “best player in the world” title isn’t so outlandish.
Shedding the splint from his previously injured finger also has made a huge difference, Embiid said. He had missed nine games with a torn ligament in his left ring finger, and Sunday’s All-Star Game was the first time he played without the splint since returning from the injury on Jan. 28.
“It’s a relief to have it off,” Embiid said.
A happy, healthy and productive Embiid over the final third of the season could signal an extended postseason.
When the Sixers visit Milwaukee on Saturday, there will be no bigger challenge than attempting to defend last year’s MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Sixers are 1-1 this season against the Bucks. Here is how Antetokounmpo has performed in both games:
Dec. 25: 121-109 Sixers win at the Wells Fargo Center. 8-27 FG, 0-7 on three-pointers, 2-4 FT, 14 rebounds, 18 points, minus-18 rating.
Feb. 6: 112-101 Bucks win at Milwaukee. 13-25 FG; 1-7 three-pointers, 9-12 FT, 20 rebounds, 36 points, plus-18 rating.
Antetokounmpo has played 21 games against the Sixers, and the Bucks are 16-5 in those games, He is averaging 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 5.0 assists, shooting 13-for-59 (22%) from three-point range.
Tomorrow: Sixers at Milwaukee Bucks, 8:30 p.m., ABC
Monday: Atlanta Hawks at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV
Wednesday: Sixers at Cleveland Cavaliers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia
Thursday: New York Knicks at Sixers, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Philadelphia
March 1: Sixers at Los Angeles Clippers, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Question: Have Elton Brand’s moves made the Sixers better or worse? — Bill Witherstonville on Twitter (@billwitherstvc).
Answer: Thanks for the question, Bill. The final answer won’t come until after the playoffs, but right now, it’s hard to say the Sixers are better, especially with the way Al Horford has been struggling.
I don’t know if it would have worked if Jimmy Butler had stayed, because I don’t think Butler and Ben Simmons jelled or would have, so I’m not going to knock Brand for Butler’s departure. That Horford, 33, was signed for $97 million over four years could really hurt the Sixers.
Josh Richardson, acquired in the Butler sign-and-trade, is a solid two-way player, who must gain more consistency as a shooter, but has been a positive addition. Acquiring and then re-signing Tobias Harris has benefited the Sixers. Harris is providing the offense that the Sixers thought they were getting in acquiring him.
I also won’t knock Brand for trading Markelle Fultz. Even though Fultz has improved in Orlando (11.9 ppg., 5.0 apg.), it was simply never going to work in Philadelphia. The selection of Matisse Thybulle (for whom the Sixers moved up to draft 20th) has been a solid move, especially with what he has added defensively. Brand’s latest acquisition of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III for three second-rounders looks like it will strengthen the Sixers’ depth, but they have played only two and three games, respectively, so let’s give that some time.