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MILWAUKEE — Down by 20 points in the first quarter and 19 in the third isn’t how the Milwaukee Bucks drew up their critical clash against the Philadelphia 76ers.
But as Bucks co-owner Wes Edens said this summer, “Guys in Philly want to talk about the process, I’d rather talk about the results.”
The result was — after the opening 105 seconds of the third quarter — as impressive of a second half as the Bucks have played all year on the way to a 118-110 victory Sunday night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center to snap a four-game losing skid. Milwaukee’s win marked the first time a team has come back from two deficits of at least 15 points to win since the Oklahoma City Thunder did that three years ago to the day — March 4, 2015 — against none other than the 76ers.
“It means a lot, it was a big win,” Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We’ve lost (four) in a row. We came into this game with the mentality that we have to win no matter what. They were up 19. They were up 20. We kept chasing. That’s tough to do in this league, but we did it twice in this game.
“Of course, we have to do a better job of not giving those leads. Coming in the first quarter focused, coming out in the third quarter focused, we still have issues with that, but we will figure it out as a team. We just did a good job of just keep playing.”
Antetokounmpo did a sizable portion of his work — 14 points — in the Bucks’ resurgent third quarter. After trailing by 12 at halftime and falling behind 81-62 with 10:15 left in the third, Milwaukee took a stranglehold on the game and never let go.
Buoyed by nine turnovers from that point to the end of the quarter — part of a season-high-tying 26 turnovers by the 76ers leading to 36 Bucks points — the Bucks embarked on a 31-5 run, including 21 straight points to end the period. Milwaukee got out in transition, dictated the tempo, locked down on defense and held the 76ers without a field goal for the final 6:32 of the period.
“I thought we were very active,” Bucks coach Joe Prunty said of limiting the 76ers to 14 points in the third. “It was a matter of if we could get to the right spots. In certain situations, it was good ball pressure. In other situations, there were times where we just got to the right spot, they tried to make a pass and we were where we needed to be. That’s why you do walk-throughs and things like that.”
Center Tyler Zeller, who entered the game in the opening minute of the third quarter after John Henson collected his fourth foul — part of the Bucks being whistled for four fouls on one possession 54 seconds into the third — anchored the middle and made life difficult for 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid. He also demonstrated a strong chemistry with Antetokounmpo throughout the night, catching multiple feeds in stride on the way to 11 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.
“Sometimes when you get double-teamed, I end up just wide open because my guy lost me or something,” Zeller said. “The one I caught with my face, but it all counts. Just got to continue to work, continue to get more comfortable. As great of a passer as he is, you just always have to have your hands ready.”
Those contributions came before a scary fall after being fouled by Embiid in the fourth quarter that reminded Bucks fans of Andrew Bogut’s fall that resulted in a broken arm in 2010. Zeller stayed down a few moments before getting up, making the free throw awarded because of Embiid’s flagrant-1 foul and then went to the locker room under his own power.
“I don’t really know what happened, I just know afterwards I was in a place I didn’t want to be,” Zeller said. “I’m OK. I’m hurting pretty good right now. Thankfully it’s just tightness and hopefully it’s just soreness and (I’ll) play through it.”
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After taking control in the third, the Bucks kept the momentum going in the fourth. Philadelphia got as close as four with 7½ minutes left, but the Bucks used a 10-0 run over the ensuing two minutes to essentially close out the victory.
Embiid finished with 19 points and eight rebounds, while rookie phenom Ben Simmons added 12 points and 15 assists. The 76ers were led by Dario Saric, who had 25 points.
Milwaukee sleepwalked into the game, falling behind 10-0 almost immediately and trailing 41-21 with 1:17 left in the opening quarter. Philadelphia’s 43 first-quarter points matched the most against the Bucks in any period this season as Milwaukee looked incapable of stopping anything and frozen in transition.
The Bucks, who have been prone to lopsided quarters during their skid, bounced right back against the 76ers’ second unit, using a 30-10 run spanning the last minute of the first and opening six minutes of the second to tie the game. Philadelphia then turned things right back around to take a 72-60 lead into the half.
But their total turnaround in the second half ultimately became the story of the night, lifting the frustration that had clouded the team over the four-game skid. Now they have to figure out how to keep the momentum going heading into yet another critical Eastern Conference battle Monday in Indianapolis.
“It gives us great energy,” Antetokounmpo said. “It is a big win for us. Tomorrow we have to play the Pacers. The team we played today and the team we play tomorrow both have what we want, so we are going to keep chasing until we achieve our goal.”