B/R NBA Staff, Fact or Fiction: Joel Embiid’s 76ers Are Bucks’ Biggest East Threat
0 of 3
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
The Boston Celtics have been in first or second place in the East for the majority of this season, but it’s the Philadelphia 76ers who might represent the conference’s biggest threat to the Milwaukee Bucks getting back to the Finals.
After a 118-109 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday, the Sixers have the best record in the league since December 1. Joel Embiid has surged into the betting favorite’s spot for MVP on FanDuel’s sportsbook, and James Harden leads the league in assists.
Boston is still the East’s most recent participant in the Finals, though. And all the principal players from that run are back. The Celtics may be in a bit of a lull now, but they’ve clearly shown the ceiling of a championship contender at other points this season.
So, which one has the best shot of beating the Bucks in the playoffs? Bleacher Report’s NBA staff has the answers you need.
Fact: 76ers Are a Threat but Must Go Through Celtics First
1 of 3
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
The Milwaukee Bucks must be wary of the Philadelphia 76ers, but only in an Eastern Conference Finals matchup. Barring a significant shift in the standings, Joel Embiid and the Sixers need to get through the Boston Celtics first. And if they do beat the powerful Celtics, Philadelphia could be a real problem for the Bucks.
Milwaukee’s greatest and most obvious advantage is All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Sixers counter with one of the most dominant centers of his generation in Embiid. Philadelphia also has the elite perimeter firepower of James Harden and Tyrese Maxey, along with steady veterans like Tobias Harris, De’Anthony Melton and P.J. Tucker (who won a title with Milwaukee in 2020-21).
The Bucks give Antetokounmpo support with a talented roster (notably Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez), but Khris Middleton has struggled to stay healthy. Can Holiday carry enough of the scoring load while simultaneously trying to defend an elite scorer like Harden? That’s a lot to ask, especially if Embiid can match (or even outplay) Antetokounmpo and Middleton isn’t his usual playoff self.
Both teams have depth, and the edge may favor Milwaukee, but playoff series are usually about star players stepping into the moment.
The Bucks might prefer to play the Celtics since they don’t have an answer for Antetokounmpo. But the C’s will have the same issue with the skilled size (and force) of Embiid in the second round. That could propel the Sixers into a very dangerous conference final for Milwaukee.
Fact: James Harden and Joel Embiid Are a Dangerous Duo in the East
2 of 3
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
You don’t have to go further back than earlier this month for evidence of Philadelphia’s ability to compete against the Bucks. On March 4, with Milwaukee boasting 16 straight wins, Harden and Embiid combined for 69 points and 20 assists in a streak-busting win. The Sixers won the fourth quarter of that game 48-31. It was striking evidence that when this team has it rolling on offense, there is no defense that can stymie its attack.
Over the entire season, Philly is scoring 122.3 points per 100 possessions when Embiid and Harden are both on the floor. That’s an offensive rating that ranks in the 96th percentile leaguewide. And it’s generated from perhaps the NBA’s most dangerous two-man game. The Harden-to-Embiid assist combo isn’t just first in the league. The gap between the 210 dimes Harden has thrown the big man’s way and the second-place combo (Nikola Jokić to Aaron Gordon) is about as big as the gap between second and 72nd.
Among the things that make that duo so dangerous is the fact that both are among the game’s most dangerous one-on-one scorers. Regardless of what pick-and-roll defense you send their way, one (or both) is eventually going to have an opening or a mismatch. Go under the screen, and Harden will roast you from the outside. Go over, and he’ll pick you apart as a passer or you’ll have Embiid headed downhill, which has become a problem for any defender.
Surrounding those two with some combination of Tobias Harris, Tyrese Maxey, P.J. Tucker, De’Anthony Melton and Georges Niang means you can’t really collapse on whatever action is happening in the middle of the floor either. All of those players can torch the nets on wide-open catch-and-shoot opportunities. And Embiid and Harden have both shown a willingness to find them on the rare occasions their initial actions don’t work.
Whether it’s Milwaukee or Boston, that’s going to be tough to stop in the playoffs. But what really makes Philly the bigger threat than Boston is simply the “best player in the series” philosophy. As long as Embiid is healthy, it’s more likely Philadelphia will check that box. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can hit some pretty absurd heights, but the last few years have made it clear that Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jokić are just on a different tier than anyone else right now.
And though Milwaukee has Giannis, we saw just a few weeks ago that Embiid is capable of outplaying him too.
Fact: Embiid Is a Matchup Nightmare for Antetokounmpo
3 of 3
Jason Miller/Getty Images
With the Milwaukee Bucks establishing themselves as the top dogs (deer?) in the East, only the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers appear powerful enough to challenge Giannis Antetokounmpo and company in a seven-game series.
Despite the Celtics sitting closer to the Bucks in the standings and having owned the No. 1 seed for much of the season themselves, Milwaukee should fear the third-seeded Sixers far more.
No disrespect to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, but neither comes close to Joel Embiid in terms of a matchup nightmare. The NBA’s leading scorer this season at 33.4 points per night, Embiid has averaged 31.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.5 blocks and shot 45.5 percent from three against the Bucks in their last two meetings. While other players crumble against Milwaukee’s No. 2-ranked defense, Embiid has proved capable of picking it apart both with his own versatile scoring and passing ability. Let’s not forget what happened the last time these two titans clashed, either.
While the Bucks were riding high on a 16-game winning streak and led by 14 points going into the fourth quarter against Philly, the Sixers exploded for 48 points in the final frame to outscore Milwaukee by 17 and secure the victory.
This was quite the statement win, one that the Bucks likely won’t forget about anytime soon. The Celtics are a fantastic team, but with Embiid looking like arguably the best player in the NBA and a deep, talented roster around him, the Sixers have now become the biggest threat to the Bucks in the East.