PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers could not have had more fun if they tried on Wednesday night, punctuating a record winning streak with a dominant performance as well as a record-setting individual performance from its youngest superstar in the making.
In truth, the team on the other end of the 76ers’ flogging on the hardwood probably had a collective smile as wide as the nearby Schuylkill River after the final buzzer sounded as well, at least in one sense.
Philadelphia continued its most dominant single-season stretch in club history by scoring 46 points in the first quarter on its way to a 130-95 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers’ 16th consecutive victory as they head into the postseason as the hottest – and, possibly, the most dangerous – team in the NBA. No team in league history has entered the postseason with a winning streak as long as Philadelphia’s Sweet 16, and who knows how long that can be extended to as the Sixers, the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, take on No. 6 Miami in the first round of the NBA Playoffs starting on Saturday.
Only five seconds – and two passes – into the game, the Sixers got on the board with a Marco Belinelli three-pointer. Five minutes into the game, the spread was already 20-6. By the time the bloodletting reached the end of the first quarter, the Sixers enjoyed a 46-18 lead, hit more three-pointers (eight) than the Bucks had total field goals (six) and shot 64 percent from the field.
Oh, and did we mention that center Joel Embiid once again did not play in this game? He did take part in an extended warmup session before the game while wearing a mask to protect his orbital bone fracture, with his impending return just another reason to unabashedly believe that the sky is indeed the limit for this team even for this season, regardless of being ahead of schedule in “The Process.”
“I feel like this team, when I think of this team now and there’s so much more to do, I really think of that thing I just said; I feel that the group really enjoys each other’s company and when we lose heavyweights like Joel Embiid or other people go down, other people do step up,” said Sixers head coach Brett Brown. “It’s not like we boast a collection of NBA All-Stars or NBA champions in that room, that isn’t who we are right now. We are in the infant stages of some organic growth [and] I love the way the program, the culture is trending.
“To end the season in breaking, I’m told, an NBA record with consecutive wins to secure the third spot in the East and to break a franchise record for consecutive wins – all those things equal what I just said,” Brown continued. “I think the group is really, really tight.”
This is very much a tight-knit group, and all you have to do is fast-forward to the end of the game to witness the bond this team has forged during this season. Up by 40 points with 1:12 remaining, every Sixer player on the bench was on the edge of his seat as 2017 No. 1 overall pick, Markelle Fultz, grabbed his 10th rebound off of a Brandon Jennings missed layup, giving Fultz his first-ever triple-double in the NBA. Fultz was fouled soon after grabbing the rebound and, soon after that, a number of Fultz’s teammates raced to him on the baseline to embrace the 19-year-old, who becomes the youngest-ever player in NBA history to record a triple-double in a game, as he ended tonight with 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in just 25:15 of action.
“It was amazing, it felt like I got it,” said Sixers guard and Rookie of the Year frontrunner Ben Simmons, the owner of 12 triple-doubles this season. “I’m so happy for him, the way he has come back and played he’s getting there, he’s getting more comfortable on the floor.”
Milwaukee was anything but comfortable tonight, even with the return of All-Star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo to the starting lineup, who missed the last two games while nursing an ankle injury. As the Bucks were getting manhandled, it looked as if they would have to return to Philadelphia on Saturday to start the postseason, as Washington and Miami were losing in their games, which would have meant the Bucks would have stayed at the No. 6 spot that they owned coming into today and would face-off with the Sixers in the playoffs.
However, the Heat came back in their game to defeat the Toronto Raptors in overtime, vaulting Miami into the No. 6 position at the end of the night. Milwaukee, after Miami’s win and Washington’s loss, is now the No. 7 seed, and will take on the injury-plagued Boston Celtics, the top-seeded team that many teams in the bottom part of the Eastern Conference playoff race would have probably preferred to have drawn in a potential first-round series.
“That was the matchup that we looked at and said that could be possible, we played them last week and we feel we matchup very well,” said veteran Bucks guard Jason Terry.
As for what happened tonight with the Bucks?
“We didn’t put much effort into the game,” said Antetokounmpo, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds but shot just 5-of-14 from the field. “[The Sixers] were able to get the lead. After that, it was just bad.”