The Milwaukee Bucks are set to host the No. 1-seeded Philadelphia 76ers for back-to-back games at the Fiserv Forum this week, setting the table for what could possibly be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Bucks currently stand in third place in the East but only 3.5 games separate them from the 76ers for the No. 1 spot with an opportunity to cover some ground in these two upcoming meetings.
Both Milwaukee and Philly have had some strong teams over the past few seasons, but regular-season success hasn't translated to the postseason. The Bucks were bounced in the second round of the playoffs last season, while the Sixers failed to get out of the first round.
As two of the best teams in the East yet again, there are lofty expectations for both franchises to try and advance to their first NBA Finals in quite some time. Our NBA.com Staff discusses which team they believe has more to prove in this year's playoffs.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I know that the masses are ready to come down hard on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks if they don't have an extended postseason run, but I still think the 76ers have more to prove.
In 2017-18 and 2018-19, they fell in the East Semifinals and although the 2019 postseason exit came on a few lucky bounces, they still led 2-1 in that series against the Toronto Raptors with a chance to go up 3-1 in a Game 4 at home and failed to take advantage.
Last year they had the excuse that Ben Simmons was injured, but they still didn't give the Boston Celtics much of a battle in a clear 4-0 sweep. A lot of that blame fell on former head coach Brett Brown but with Doc Rivers taking over and a bunch of new pieces in place around the core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris, the Sixers have to make some noise in the playoffs.
It has been 20 years since they've been to a Conference Finals. "The Process" has been over for nearly five years now. They've held the East's best record for the entire season and look like a dominating force to be reckoned with. If that doesn't carry into the postseason and this team can't get back to the Conference Finals, the entire city of Philadelphia will be crushing them this offseason, ready to ship off any and everyone on the roster.
There's a lot of pressure on the Bucks, there's no doubt about it. But if Philly wants to be taken seriously as title contenders moving forward, they have to prove it in this year's playoffs.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): For me, the answer is the Bucks.
We're talking about a team that has been bounced in each of the last two postseasons for similar reasons. There's some pressure on Antetokounmpo to prove that he can beat the one scheme that's given him trouble, as well as on head coach Mike Budenholzer to make the in-series adjustments the Bucks need to take down other contenders.
As for the 76ers, I don't hold their exits the last two postseasons against them in quite the same way I do the Bucks. In 2019, they lost a heavyweight fight that could have gone either way. Last season, they were a mess from start to finish and didn't have their second-best player in Simmons for their first-round series with the Celtics.
To boot, the 76ers have a little more flexibility than the Bucks should things go sideways. I'm confident they could get a good return on Ben Simmons if they ever were interested in trading him and they control more of their future first-round picks.
Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): It's the Bucks.
When Milwaukee made the trade to pick up Jrue Holiday, they went all in. They also emptied their cupboard and have very few assets they can move in the future that will improve the team they have now without blowing up their core. They believe this team is good enough to win it all.
Whether that's right or wrong is up for debate, what isn't up for debate is that this team needs to get over the hump.
They can't afford to go up 2-0 over an opponent and get blasted in the next four games. They can't afford to get gentlemen's swept in the second round of the playoffs. The Bucks need to either meet or exceed expectations for once. I'll admit, expectations have changed now that the Nets have assembled a pretty dominant team on paper, but I still expect Milwaukee to at least make the Conference Finals, and while they're there make it a competitive series.
That's a low bar considering what we expected from them last season and they also have a better team than they did a year ago.
So if they can't do that, it would be a disappointing season, to say the least, for the Bucks in my opinion.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): It's close for me but I'm saying it's the Sixers.
Somehow, despite Scott's great point about Philadelphia's most recent postseason exits being excusable, there is a large level of distrust in this team on the postseason stage. I'm guilty of pushing forth similar rhetoric, saying that I "don't trust" this team despite whatever it achieves in the regular season.
But why is that?
Obviously, the Sixers aren't playing to gain the trust of writers like myself but they have the opportunity to prove plenty of us wrong with a deep run this postseason. Jimmy Butler has been gone for two seasons now, can Embiid be that guy in clutch situations? Is it Harris? Will Simmons impose his will?
Can Rivers fix their postseason issues? Can they reverse Rivers' recent postseason misfortune? For Milwaukee, there is a clear question or two but for Philadelphia, a lot pile up in my head. That would seem to be the source of the general distrust and that's why I feel the Sixers have a little more to prove.
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