The Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers were overwhelmingly marked as the leaders in the Eastern Conference pecking order before a ball was tipped in the 2019-20 season.
For the Bucks, this made perfect sense. After winning 60 games a season ago, they were able to re-sign Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and George Hill in addition to an earlier extension for Eric Bledsoe.
They also happen to have the somehow still improving reigning MVP on their roster.
MORE: What to look out for on a busy NBA Christmas Day
Philadelphia on the other hand, re-tooled their roster with the league's most fearsome defence on their mind.
Adding Al Horford to the duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons has shown flashes of dominance, though it's on the other end of the floor where the alarm bells are slowly but surely beginning to ring.
The Bucks are 27-4 and riding an eight-game road winning streak into Philadelphia, while the Sixers hold an imposing 15-2 record on their home floor.
Results, babies and violent acts
While these two teams are yet to face each other in a playoff series, it would be certainly reasonable to assume they don't particularly like each other.
"Guys in Philly want to talk about the process, I'd rather talk about the results."
That comment came from Milwaukee owner, Wes Edens, at the introductory press conference for Bucks' General Manager Jon Horst way back in June of 2017.
As he so often does, Joel Embiid quickly responded on Twitter by simply saying, "That's cute."
That's cute... #TrustTheProcess https://t.co/LArLqaBXFT- Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) June 19, 2017
Of course, that wasn't the first time Embiid caused a wave regarding Milwaukee on social media, after months earlier posting a photo on Instagram after a Philadelphia road win against the Bucks, tagging the location as, "S***hole."
On the court, tensions have also flared, with Simmons and Antetokounmo a pair to monitor on Christmas Day.
Antetokounmpo filled the boxscore with 32 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists in the Bucks 123-108 win over the Sixers in October last year. Postgame, Simmons sharply responded to a question about the matchup by saying, "I thought I should have been on him the whole time."
Next time they met, Simmons did indeed find himself on Antetokounmpo with regularity, and the soon to be crowned MVP posted the first 50-point game of his career. After a late dunk on Simmons, Antetokounmpo mouthed, "he's a f****** baby!."
Soooo Giannis dunks hard on Ben Simmons, calls him a "baby," then 10 seconds later Ben comes up with the put-back slam right over Giannis' head. Sixers win and I'll take a seven-game playoff series between these two teams please. pic.twitter.com/yHqTxNst3m- Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) March 17, 2019
"It's easy, I'd rather Ben guard me than Joel. It's simple," Antetokounmpo remarked postgame.
Last of all, there was the ejection of Bledsoe less than three minutes into their final regular-season matchup, after a pair of shoves resulted in a mini-game of dodgeball with the Bucks guard ultimately being ejected for the incident, and subsequently waved off the floor by the Sixers big man.
"I was just thinking that I'm pretty good at what I do," Embiid said postgame. "This is the second time I got one of the key guys from the other team thrown out, so I was pretty excited about it."
In summary, there have been more than enough spot fires between the two teams to suggest the festive Christmas Day spirit may be put on hold while these teams look to land the first blow in the season series.
Oh yeah, the ledger is currently 4-3 in favour of Milwaukee since Eden's comments. For those of you keeping count at home.
Dominant Bucks and the confusing Sixers
Entering Christmas Day, the Milwaukee Bucks are on pace for 72 wins, which would fall just one victory shy of the Golden State Warriors regular-season record.
They own the league's number one ranked defence, second-best offence and their net rating of 13.0 is on historic pace.
Antetokounmpo, who is on track to claim back-to-back MVP awards is now shooting 34 percent from downtown on more than five attempts per game, and as they did last year, Mike Budenholzer's squad have perfected the art of protecting the paint and only giving up the shots they want you to take.
Despite missing All-Star Khris Middleton for two weeks with a thigh contusion and now Eric Bledsoe with a fractured fibula, the Bucks have continued their juggernaut ways, and in doing so, have remarkably kept Antetokounmpo to just 31.1 minutes a night, which ranks an absurd 68th league-wide.
While the Bucks steady excellence has become a known regular season quantity, the Sixers remain a mystery, as their sputtering offence continues to falter when they need it most - the fourth quarter.
The Sixers currently hold the league's 15th ranked offence, making them the definition of average nearing the halfway point of the regular season.
Alarmingly, this slips all the way down to 26th in the fourth quarter, where the only four teams less efficient than Philadelphia are Memphis, Brooklyn, Charlotte and Atlanta - not exactly a group of contenders for the championship.
Brett Brown: "I feel like our competitive spirit has taken a dent because of our inability to score."- Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) December 21, 2019
An obvious lack of shooting, an unwillingness to aggressively look to score from anyone outside of Embiid has left Brett Brown's squad floundering down the stretch.
Simmons, who is averaging just 1.7 shot attempts in the final period is in the midst of a particularly poor season offensively, with his points and rebounds both dropping despite a slight increase in court time.
According to basketball-reference, just 23 of Simmons' 300 shot attempts have come from beyond 10-feet, as he still flat out refuses to take the initiative in expanding his offensive package in a game setting.
Simmons limitations are compounded by Harris (31 percent), Embiid (31 percent), Horford (33 percent) and Richardson (36 percent), hardly striking fear into opposition defences from the perimeter. To put it simply, the Sixers have become too easy to defend.
Defence holds the key
This could spell serious danger on Christmas, as they are set to meet a Bucks' team that ranks number one in the league for opponent shot frequency at the rim (29 percent) and also number one for opponent field goal percentage at the rim (53.9 percent) per cleaning the glass.
This is the kind of Lakers possession that would trouble most teams, but the Bucks are able to handle it. LeBron gets loose off a pick, but is deterred by Lopez from reaching the rim. After LeBron takes it back out, his drive is met by an intact defense that packs the paint. pic.twitter.com/YBVU58iAPS- Positive Residual (@presidual) December 20, 2019
Perhaps no player on the Sixers squad felt the Bucks' paint squeeze more than Embiid, who averaged a staggering 9.6 attempts from three against Milwaukee last season, well up on his average of 4.1, as Milwaukee successfully turned him into a jump-shooting big - he only made nine of his 29 launches from range.
When looking at the numbers, you feel that Philadelphia will need an outlier shooting night from three to keep pace with Milwaukee's high powered offence, with Harris, Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz or Mike Scott the players to watch.
Shooting with regularity from beyond the arc would be an outlier in itself, with the Sixers attempting just 29.6 long-range shots a game, 10.0 fewer than Milwaukee. It's worth noting that Milwaukee gives up the second most three-point attempts in the league at 38.2 per game, which will be something to monitor as the game progresses.
It's not all negative with Philadelphia, though, as they have been formidable on the defensive end. Simmons and Embiid have been immense, with both expected to be in the running for All-Defensive teams on current form.
For all the talk about their fit as a duo on offence, the Sixers are only giving up 99.8 points per 100 possessions with their two best players on the floor.
When the frontcourt of Embiid and Horford were assembled, it would seem that they had Antetokounmpo in mind.
Given their combination of size, length and versatility, it does come as a surprise that the Sixers rank 18th in the league for opponent shot frequency at the rim (35.7 percent) and 17th in the league for opponent shot accuracy (63.1 percent) per cleaning the glass.
The Sixers somewhat lacklustre rim defence will be put to the ultimate test against Milwaukee, with the Bucks averaging 51.9 points in the paint.
Look for Horford to guard Antetokounmpo on the perimeter, with Embiid waiting for him at the basket as the Sixers grand offseason plan goes on display for the first time.
What it means
Christmas will deliver the first of four games between the Bucks and Sixers. As it currently stands, Milwaukee hold a formidable 5.5 game lead in the standings, though there are still 50 plus games to be played, meaning that tiebreaker scenarios could still come into calculations by playoff time.
With Milwaukee and Philadelphia each holding a 15-2 record on their home floor, it's fair to say home-court advantage would hold significant weight in any potential playoff series.
For the Bucks, a win would be another tick in the December box that already includes marquee wins over both squads from LA. For the Sixers, an impressive offensive outing against the stingiest defence in the NBA could provide the launchpad for a move up the standings.
Two elite defences, superstars on either team, a building rivalry, Christmas Day.
Sounds like must-watch basketball.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.