In a season of 59 victories thus far, Thursday night’s 128-122 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers may just be the most satisfying one of all for the Milwaukee Bucks.
The reasons are many. Most important of all, the Bucks (59-20) clinched the best record in the NBA and home-court advantage for every playoff series.
Speaking of the playoffs, the 76ers (49-30) have been looming as a scary playoff matchup for the Bucks.
The 76ers scored a 130-125 victory on the Bucks’ home court in Fiserv Forum back on March 17. Joel Embiid played a dominant role in that one, getting the victory despite a career-high 52 points from Giannis Antetokounmpo.
That game marked the Bucks’ first without Malcolm Brogdon because of the tear in his plantar fascia.
Even without that loss back on St. Patrick’s Day, the Bucks had plenty of reasons to take satisfaction simply for what happened Thursday night.
First off, they got the win without Eric Bledsoe, who was ejected just 2 minutes, 36 seconds into the game. Bledsoe and Embiid tangled for rebound position while Antetokounmpo was making a 3-pointer. The ball landed in Embiid’s hands a split second after he and Bledsoe disengaged, drawing a whistle. Ebiid threw the ball at Bledsoe, who caught the changeup and returned a fastball.
Philadelphia’s Mike Scott fired a fastball back at Bledsoe.
When it was all sorted out, Bledsoe was given two technicals, while Embiid got just one and Scott got one. That didn’t sit well with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. He was smiling by the end, though.
Antetokounmpo finished with 45 points, 16 rebounds, six assists and five blocked shots. And unlike the game 2 1/2 weeks ago, he got a lot of help.
Khris Middleton added 22 points, and George Hill stepped into the Bledsoe void and scored 20, including eight in the final 1:54.
The Bucks led for most of the first half until the Sixers got hot and made their last four 3-pointers. Ben Simmons’ driving layup gave Philly a 58-56 lead at the half, and the Sixers continued to lead throughout the second half.
The Bucks finally got back to even in the fourth quarter on Sterling Brown’s driving dunk that made it 109-109 with 5:02 left. After a jumper by JJ Redick, Brown tied it again at 111.
But the Sixers got a pair of 3-pointers by Mike Scott, the second giving them a 118-113 lead with 2:54 left.
Middleton made 1 of 2 free throws with 2:26 left, and Tobias Harris, the former Buck, was called for an offensive foul on a pick.
Hill then began his huge stretch run, stepping back for a 3-pointer that cut it to 118-117. Embiid made just 1 of 2 free throws, and Hall drove the left side of the lane and banked in the tying points.
The Bucks defense then dug in. Brook Lopez deflected an Embiid pass. The ball went to Antetokounmpo, who headed upcourt and saw Hill behind the defense for a go-ahead layup. After a Redick miss, Antetokounmpo rebounded and led a fast break, feeding Brown for a layup and a 123-119 lead with 40 seconds left.
After Harris missed, Antetokounmpo grabbed his second big rebound of the stretch and got it to Middleton, whose two free throws iced the game. Antetokounmpo added a third assists in the final 1:02 when he fed Lopez for a fast-break dunk.
One of the more satisfying parts of the victory may have been how Brown and Hill scored so many of the big points, whieh Antetokounmpo playing facilitator.
Brown finished with 12 points, and D.J. Wilson chipped in 11 points, six rebounds and some big defense in 16 minutes.
Embiid posted a triple-double of 34 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists, and Redick scored 29 points. Scott finished with 20, and Ben Simmons dished out 13 assists. But Embiid needed 31 shots, making just 12.
The Sixers made 18 of 36 3-pointers, yet the Bucks never let them pull away. After Scott’s final 3-pointer, the Bucks went on a 14-1 run
Philadelphia celebrated on the Bucks’ home court 2 1/2 weeks earlier. So you can bet the Bucks took a whole lot of satisfaction with this one.