PHILADELPHIA -- As the Milwaukee Bucks found themselves trailing in the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers, Giannis Antetokounmpo had one message for his teammates:

I've got this.

Yes, the Bucks were missing Eric Bledsoe, who had been ejected three minutes into the game. Khris Middleton was limited to 25 minutes as he returns from injury. Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic were sidelined because of injuries of their own.

And yet, with his demeanor, with his actions, with his play, Antetokounmpo kept pulling Milwaukee along, refusing to allow them to miss an opportunity to claim home-court advantage throughout the playoffs and the best record in the NBA on their own terms.

"I was just trying to be confident," Antetokounmpo told ESPN afterward. "The most important thing is that your teammates see that you're confident. Even when Bledsoe, one of our star players, and one of our most important pieces, is out, they don't see you lose your composure and just give up and they see you're confident, everybody gets confidence.

"It's all about how you walk into the room. Because everything I do, my teammates are looking at me. So I try to be the best example for them, be a leader and when I go out there just not second-guessing."

There was no second-guessing after this one. Antetokounmpo's final stat line said it all: 45 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocked shots in 35 minutes. So, too, did the final score: Bucks 128, Sixers 122, a victory Milwaukee earned with a 15-4 run to end the game -- one punctuated by an emphatic block by Antetokounmpo on Joel Embiid.

It was a victory that not only showed why Milwaukee has been the NBA's best team during this regular season, but why Antetokounmpo has been the league's most valuable player. Now, as the playoffs are just over a week away, the goal becomes even bigger: to do this in the postseason.

"That's kind of how he's built," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "To play against the best, and compete, and just lay it all on the line.

"That's kind of how he's built, is what I'd say."

These Bucks have been painstakingly built around Antetokounmpo by Budenholzer and general manager Jon Horst -- the former installing a system that accentuates all of Antetokounmpo's remarkable gifts at both ends of the court, and the latter going out and finding the pieces (center Brook Lopez and reserve big Ersan Ilyasova during the summer, reserve big Mirotic at the trade deadline) to make it hum. The result has been a team that has steamrollered the NBA all season long.

But the Bucks haven't been this dominant because of a system, or because of moves made in the summer. It has been because they have a player who looks primed to not only win his first most valuable player award, but also to somehow continue to get better -- despite already arguably being the best player in the world today.

"He's still learning," Bucks reserve point guard George Hill said. "He's still getting better. He's still young right now, still learning the ins-and-outs of the game and things like that. But it's fun being around him and seeing him evolve, from when he first came into the league to where he is now, the way his body has changed, the way his mentality has changed.

"It's fun to be around."

A year ago, Hill was along for the ride in Ohio as LeBron James put the Cleveland Cavaliers on his back and carried them to the NBA Finals for the fourth season in a row. Doing so was one of the highlights of James' career, and a reminder of how he had ruled so completely over the Eastern Conference -- and, truth be told, the league -- throughout this decade.

Then James chose to go west, opting to join the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency. And while James wound up not making the playoffs for the first time in 14 years, he was never going to be able to defend his crown atop the East.

And, the way Hill sees it, there's no reason Antetokounmpo can't be the one to pick up that mantle from James and become the conference's dominant force.

"He's one of the best in the league for a reason," Hill said. "He knows that, and he knows he's going to draw crowds and he has a good team behind him, and to go with him.

"I think he's going to have a phenomenal postseason."

If the way Antetokounmpo plays in the playoffs is anything like what he did to the Sixers on Thursday night, Hill won't have much trouble being right. Antetokounmpo repeatedly dragged multiple defenders to the rim as he relentlessly barged into the paint, going to the foul line 21 times -- more than Philadelphia did as a team (18). He made All-Star point guard Ben Simmons -- not exactly a small man himself -- look helpless attempting to defend him in the post as he'd methodically slam his shoulder into Simmons time and again until he was inches from the rim, when he'd turn and either lay the ball in or slam it through the hoop with both hands.

Defensively, he was a completely different terror, flying around to help wherever was necessary -- including blocking Embiid (34 points, 13 rebounds, 13 assists in 37 minutes) four different times. Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo had five of his six assists in the fourth quarter to help close out the win.

"The steps he's taken already since the beginning of the season have been absolutely unreal, and otherworldly," Lopez said. "I couldn't have a higher opinion of him.

"And, that being said, he can still get so much better, even so."

Thursday night was celebratory for the Bucks. This is a franchise that, for so long, has been an NBA afterthought. Milwaukee has been able to celebrate a postseason series victory only once -- in 2001, when it lost to these same Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals -- in the past 30 years.

In those intervening 18 years, Milwaukee has made the playoffs eight times and never advanced -- the most of any team in the four major American professional sports, according to ESPN's Stats & Information research. Meanwhile, every other NBA fan base has been able to celebrate a playoff series win since then.

So it is understandable that there were plenty of good feelings flowing in Milwaukee's locker room after Thursday's come-from-behind victory. For Antetokounmpo, though, this was not a time for celebration. Instead, it was simply a reminder of just how far the Bucks still have left to go.

He has been on the losing end of a playoff series three different times -- to the Chicago Bulls in 2015, to the Toronto Raptors in 2017 and to the Boston Celtics (in seven games) last season. He's determined not to find himself on the losing end again.

"We haven't been out of the first round. So we have to take it step by step," Antetokounmpo told ESPN, pounding his fist into his hand to emphasize each step. "You can't jump steps.

"When we get to the playoffs, I think we can beat any team. We can beat any team."

Most playoff appearances without a series win since 2001
Entering this season, the Milwaukee Bucks have made eight playoff appearances since their last series win. That is the most playoff appearances without a series win in the four major North American sports (NBA/NFL/MLB/NHL) since May 2001 when the Bucks last won a series.

That shouldn't be a controversial statement. The Bucks have the best record in the NBA. They have outscored teams by nine points per 100 possessions, an utterly absurd number when considering the defending champion Golden State Warriors outscore teams by 6.4 points per 100 possessions this season. The Bucks are in the top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency, leading the NBA in the latter category. They arguably have the best player in the NBA. Budenholzer is the heavy favorite to win the NBA's Coach of the Year award -- an honor his star has no qualms about saying he should win for the second time after collecting the award in 2015 with the Atlanta Hawks.

"He knows his s---," Antetokounmpo said.

And yet, despite all that, doubts persist. This group hasn't advanced in the playoffs yet. There are questions about whether Antetokounmpo's supporting cast will be able to do enough to help him. Some wonder if his inconsistent jumper will become a liability if teams can somehow keep him out of the lane and force him to make it repeatedly.

Teams aren't supposed to jump from the middle of the pack to the front of the line unexpectedly. Four years ago, another team -- the Golden State Warriors -- found itself in the midst of a similar metamorphosis. They'd changed coaches, installed a new offensive system, had a player (Stephen Curry) become the league's MVP and finished with the NBA's best record.

At every turn, right up until -- and even after -- they won the 2015 NBA title, many doubted they could do it.

Whether the Bucks can follow that same script remains to be seen. The same goes for Antetokounmpo's pursuit of this season's MVP award, as he has stiff competition from Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden -- the same man Curry edged to win his first MVP in 2015.

But Antetokounmpo has heard those critics. And he knows that until these Bucks prove them wrong, those doubters won't be going anywhere.

"Yeah, for sure it motivates us," Antetokounmpo told ESPN. "We're Milwaukee. We haven't been out of the first round since 2001. As I said, we have to take it step by step. But it definitely motivates us.

"People don't think we can't win it all. But at the end of the day, we are going to play for that.

"We are going to play till the end. It's in our hands to decide what the end is going to be."

Wherever the end is for the Bucks, they will go as far as Giannis Antetokounmpo can take them. And, as the playoffs arrive, the same message he gave his teammates with his demeanor, with his actions and with his play Thursday night, is the same one he'll be hoping to give to the rest of the NBA over the next two months:

I've got this.