PHILADELPHIA -- As Joel Embiid toed the free throw line, raised the ball to eye level and prepared to release, the Philadelphia fans began to chant, "Trust the Process!"
Those three words have been the 76ers' rallying cry as the franchise climbed from the pits of perpetual losing to one of the Eastern Conference's most formidable teams. The phrase has been so synonymous with Embiid's growth as a player, his nickname in Philadelphia is Joel "The Process" Embiid.
The free throws swished through the net Wednesday and Philadelphia marched toward a 21-point halftime lead against the league's best offensive team -- the Milwaukee Bucks. It was the Sixers' 3-point barrage, though, that helped them to a 121-109 victory over Milwaukee.
"I think this team is designed for the playoffs," Sixers coach Brett Brown said after the game. "I believe the road we have traveled so far has been a little bit erratic at times."
There have absolutely been bumps. This season, the Sixers have had a tendency to play up or down to their competition. They have suffered bad losses to bottom-dwelling teams such as the Washington Wizards, for example. But against the best offensive team in the NBA, Milwaukee, they came out with a fire. The Sixers' shooting, too, has been inconsistent. On Wednesday, they made 21 3-pointers, tying the franchise record.
"Coach just told us before the game he wants us to continue to shoot the ball with confidence," center Al Horford said. "We have a lot of capable shooters. We have a lot to prove in that department. Tonight was one of those nights that they started to fall."
During his postgame news conference, Embiid said he considered Wednesday's effort the Sixers' best performance of the season.
"You are playing the best in the league," Embiid said after his 31-point, 11-rebound outing. "We came out and showed that we are right there. We still have a long way to go, obviously, but we are right there and we are going to keep on getting better."
Before the game, Brown talked about the matchup like a test. He called the Bucks "NBA royalty." Defensively, stopping Giannis Antetokounmpo -- whom he called a "runaway train" -- was a full-team task. It turned out, his enormous frontcourt was up for it.
Embiid and Horford defended Antetokounmpo for the majority of the game, forcing the reigning league Most Valuable Player to take tough, contested shots. He finished 8-for-27 from the field on his way to 18 points. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, it was the first time Antetokounmpo had missed more than 18 shots.
"They just played harder than us, better than us," Antetokounmpo said. "There are going to be some nights that you don't make shots. But you got to keep making plays, you got to keep believing in yourselves. You cannot back down. I wasn't having my best night tonight, but at the end of the day my teammates want me to keep shooting the ball. I want to keep shooting the ball."
Through the first three quarters, Philadelphia (23-10) dominated Milwaukee on both ends of the floor. At one point, the Sixers had built a 30-point lead. But after Ben Simmons scored with 4 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game to put Philadelphia up 115-94, Milwaukee went on a 14-3 run.
Antetokounmpo completed an alley-oop from Khris Middleton, Middleton hit a 3-pointer, Sterling Brown hammered down a dunk and the Bucks whittled the Sixers' lead to single digits for the first time since the second quarter. With 43 seconds left, Horford made a 3-pointer that sealed the Sixers' victory.
The Sixers forced the Bucks into their toughest single-game shot quality of the season, according to Second Spectrum tracking data, with Milwaukee's expected effective field goal percentage falling 5 percentage points worse than its league-leading mark of 53.8%. The loss drops the Bucks to 27-5 -- still the best record in the NBA.
"We had to go through this today," Antetokounmpo said. "This is good. I like it. Obviously you know I don't like losing, but at the end of the day, I think sometimes when you lose this way you get better as a team."
Brown, on the other hand, said the Sixers were finally finding a rhythm. "You are under a microscope of trying to move this team forward and get it whole and improve it," he said, "but I think the landing spot is exciting."