DETROIT – Christmas Day will be judgment day for the 76ers.
A sellout Wells Fargo Center crowd and a national TV audience are about to witness how the 76ers stack up against the Milwaukee Bucks. The two squads were preseason favorites to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
Milwaukee has done its part, coming into the much-anticipated contest with a league-best 27-4 record. The Bucks have won three straight and 21 of their last 22 games. Meanwhile, the Sixers have been inconsistent, out of sync, injured and have had their deficiencies exposed against a zone defense.
Yet coach Brett Brown has said it would take until after Christmas for the Sixers to find a rhythm.
Well, that time is right at the doorstep for the 22-10 squad that has won two straight after losing its previous three games. But those two victories came against undermanned and struggling Detroit and Washington squads with a combined 20-40 record.
Now the Sixers will start the next third of the season on the NBA’s marquee regular-season day against the Bucks. The atmosphere inside the arena is likely to be electric.
“I can’t wait,” Brown said following Monday’s 125-109 victory over the Pistons. “As I told the team, especially the people that were raised in America, Christmas Day NBA games matter.”
As a kid, Brown, 58, said he couldn’t wait to turn the TV on to watch Christmas NBA games. This will mark the third consecutive season that he will coach the Sixers on this holiday. They suffered a 121-114 overtime road setback to Boston last season. Then, in 2017, the Sixers took a 105-98 road win over New York.
They have a 17-14 record on this holiday. The contest will mark the first time the Sixers have hosted a Christmas Day game since 1988.
The Bucks are coached by Brown’s close friend Mike Budenholzer. The two were longtime assistant coaches together in San Antonio before receiving head-coaching opportunities before the start of the 2013-14 season. This is Budenholzer’s second season in Milwaukee after spending five in Atlanta.
“To be able to have that opportunity against such a high-quality team on Christmas is unique and special,” said Brown, in his seventh season as Sixers coach. “We are very much looking forward to it.”
The Bucks lead the NBA in scoring (average of 120.6 point per game) and rebounding (51.3). They are second in field-goal percentage (48.2) and three-pointers made (444). Milwaukee is fourth in average blocks per game (6.2).
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chance to win his second consecutive league MVP award. The forward averages a league second-best 31.0 points to go with 12.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks.
In addition to averaging career highs on points and rebounds, Antetokounmpo has a league-high 16 games in which he has scored at least 30 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds.
“You see what Giannis has done in regards to the growth of his game,” Brown said. "The people that play around him and off him, it’s a well-balanced team. They feed off him and his obvious skill set, and they hit a lot of threes and just let him play.
“It’s just going to be a great game. We are all looking forward to it.”
This will mark Tobias Harris’ first Christmas game. The nine-year veteran re-signed with the Sixers this offseason after being the headliner of a blockbuster trade with the Clippers in February. Before that, Harris had stops in Detroit, Orlando and Milwaukee.
The Sixers are 5-2 in games when Harris has at least 20 shot attempts, including 5-1 in December. Harris is averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and a career-best 3.2 assists this season.
Joel Embiid leads the Sixers in scoring (23.0). He’s seventh in the league in rebounding (12.6), one spot behind Antetokounmpo. Embiid has averaged 29.5 points, 16.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in two games on Christmas Day.
“That’s going to be a great test for us,” Harris said of facing the Bucks. “Obviously, just to be able to play on Christmas is going to be a great experience. But at the same time, it’s versus a very good team. It’s going to be at home, and to play in front of our crowd. It’s going to be a great game.”