The 76ers made a resounding statement.
They showed a sellout Wells Fargo Center crowd and a national TV audience how they stack up against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers showed why, like Milwaukee, they were a preseason favorite to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Heck, they looked destined to reach the NBA Finals after Wednesday’s 121-109 rout of the Bucks. The Sixers improved to 23-10 after the much-anticipated Christmas Day game. They moved up one spot to fourth place in the conference standings.
“It’s the most energy we’ve had,” Ben Simmons said. "It’s Christmas. It’s always going to be there. I think this just sets the tone for us, and we know what level we can compete at. We can compete with the best.
“We just have to set that tone every game, no matter who we’re playing.”
One could argue that Joel Embiid had a predictable performance considering he was facing Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP.
Embiid, the Sixers’ two-time All-Star center, usually gets up for elite players in nationally-televised games. This was no different.
He dominated offensively and made things tough for Antetokounmpo on the the defensive end.
Embiid finished with 31 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks. He set the tempo early, scoring 14 first-quarter points.
Meanwhile, he and Al Horford drew the assignment of guarding Antetokounmpo. The Bucks’ franchise player finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists. However, he made just 8 of 27 shots and missed all seven of his three-point attempts.
He came into the game averaging 31.0 points, second in the NBA, to go with 12.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and 1.2 blocks.
“Great defense,” Antetokounmpo said. “Obviously a lot of bodies, make me take shots, long shots, late [ shots] ... that is pretty much it.”
Embiid said he wasn’t motivated by playing against the reigning MVP.
“Just play my game,” he said. "You know like I said, my goal is to get to the playoffs healthy. But if my team needs me, I’m going to show up.
“I feel like a lot of people have kind of forgotten, I guess, who I am. ... But God willing and hopefully, I’m healthy for the playoffs, it’s going to be a different story.”
Tobias Harris (22 points), Josh Richardson (18 points), reserve Furkan Korkmaz (16 points) and Ben Simmons (15 points, 14 assists. 3 steals, 2 blocks) joined Embiid as the Sixers’ double-digit scorers.
The Sixers made 21 three-pointers in 44 attempts to tie a team record. Khris Middleton paced the Bucks with 31 points.
But this was a huge statement by the Sixers.
Milwaukee has the league’s best record at 27-5. The Bucks came into the contest winners of three straight and 21 of their last 22 games.
But it was hard to gauge just how good the Sixers were before this game. They had been inconsistent, out of sync, injured, and have had their deficiencies exposed against zone defenses.
Yet coach Brett Brown has said it would take until after Christmas for the Sixers to find a rhythm. Well, that time is now, and his squad played like a contender.
All things considered, including level of opponent, the first two quarters marked the Sixers’ best half of basketball this season.
They shot 51.0% -- including making 11 of 22 three-pointers (50%). Embiid had 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting. Richardson added 16 points while Harris had 12.
The Sixers cruised to a 69-48 halftime cushion. They extended their lead to 29 points (95-67) on Richardson’s jumper with 11 minutes, 19 seconds remaining.
But the Bucks went on a run to pull within nine points twice late in the game. The second time came on Middleton’s three-pointer with 1:20 left to make it 118-109. However, the hosts held on to their 12-point lead after Horford’s three-pointer with 43.4 seconds left.
The Sixers led by as many as 29 points in a barometer game.
This was a big game for us," Harris said. “Even early on in the season, this was the game that everybody marked off on their calendar.”