December 26, 2019
When Giannis Antetokounmpo is at his best, there are few players in the league who are able to slow him down. If you're strong enough to hold him up in the post, you're probably too slow to keep up in transition. If you're fast enough to run with him, you're too frail to avoid being dunked on.
Enter Joel Embiid, one of the league's most special defensive talents. Philadelphia's franchise center has never backed down from an opportunity to go toe-to-toe with one of his fellow elite players, and he turned in one of his finest performances of his career against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
"I thought defensively the Al [Horford] and Joel did on Giannis was outstanding, and you needed all of that to find a way to win," Brett Brown said after the win. "Maybe a bit unusual to have your centers guarding Giannis. As people know, we've tried this in the past and had mixed results, good and bad in there. Tonight, those two were very good."
The two big men had an abundance of experience defending Giannis between them entering the game, though they insisted afterward there were no secrets traded, no silver bullet loaded into the chamber. It was a good, old-fashioned gameplan from the coaching staff backed up by execution from their star player.
It is something we've seen before from the Sixers. When Brown has needed someone to guard rangy, athletic wings who aren't the most trustworthy shooters, Embiid is the man whose number has been called. It was a game-changer against Toronto's Pascal Siakam in last year's playoffs, and in spurts against the Bucks last season, it emerged as perhaps their best plan against Giannis.
But there was some doubt about who would get the bulk of the assignment this season with Horford in the fold (and with both bigs sharing the floor), as the former Boston big man has a reputation for slowing down Giannis himself. Embiid left little doubt as to how they'll defend Milwaukee's MVP moving forward.
Embiid made plays that simply are not possible for ordinary NBA players against Giannis. When he gets out in the open floor, he is downright terrifying, and the favor he has earned as one of the league's top stars allows him to barrel through defenders like a runaway freight train at times. Someone forgot to tell Embiid that — Giannis sought out contact early and often, and he emerged from those clashes of titans the bloodied and beaten man.
He simply does not have games like this on offense. Antetokounmpo is the league's best finisher by a considerable margin at the rim when you consider how often he is self-creating and the volume of shots he attempts around the basket (11.4 per game, the league leader by over a full shot per game). This season, he has made 72 percent of his shots from five feet and in.
Antetokounmpo's shot chart against the Sixers, to put it lightly, was nowhere near those gaudy standards. It is the first time his career Antetokounmpo has missed as many shots (19) as he did on Christmas.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting 72 percent from 5 feet and in on the league's highest volume around the basket. His shot chart tonight: pic.twitter.com/3VeLT0hjNr— Kyle Neubeck (@KyleNeubeck) December 25, 2019
The Bucks have built a machine around their reigning MVP, flooding their starting lineup and bench with shooters who can kill you if you cheat too far off of the perimeter to help on Giannis in the paint. Against most opponents, it forces teams into uncomfortable decisions. Would you rather concede open threes to a bunch of good shooters or let a physical marvel play against single coverage in the paint?
But Embiid and Horford render that problem meaningless, at least as close to meaningless as you can get when guarding a player of his caliber. Their ability to hold up in single coverage simplifies life for everyone else, and that cuts into critical parts of Milwaukee's attack.
Milwaukee's defense is the catalyst for a lot of what they do. They have more possessions in transition than any team in the league, with their shooters flying down the floor to flank Giannis and give him an outlet on the off chance he can't get to the rim. They get to their spots and get clean looks routinely enough to terrify you.
Embiid was the giant wrench in their plans, forcing the Bucks to reset and try to score in a tougher halfcourt setting. Early offense is often the toughest to stop, and Embiid was excellent at making sure the Bucks got nothing easy in the early portion of the shot clock.
This shouldn't be looked at as some easily sustainable performance. Any number of things could go in Milwaukee's favor next time the two meet. A few made threes, some better bounces for Giannis on shots in tight, even a friendlier whistle could back in the Bucks' favor, and you never know how early confidence can change the course of a game.
"It's a huge challenge. When you guard a guy like that, it's not individual, it's a collective effort, but Jo really stepped up to the plate tonight and was great defending him," Al Horford said after the game. "He's very gifted, it's actually kind of like Ben when he's coming down...you need the defense to be loaded up because one-on-one you're not going to fare very well."
Mr. Horford raises an important point. It is certainly not a one-man job to contain a player like Giannis. When Embiid hits the bench the Sixers have to add more help to the mix even though the Sixers have another Giannis stopper in Horford. Ben Simmons is used to seeing teams wall off the paint against him, so who better to help turn the tables on Milwaukee than him?
Locally, the Sixers have been viewed by many as a disappointment by many this season, a potential juggernaut weighed down by coaching, a lack of drive, or a flawed roster depending on who you ask. Quietly, they have amassed one of the league's best records against the best teams in their conference, with wins over Milwaukee, Boston, Toronto, Miami, and Indiana highlighting the early portion of their schedule.
The Sixers, by their own admission, came out with more energy against Milwaukee than they have against any other opponent this season. Philadelphia's energy in games against the bottom rung has lagged, but you won't face many teams like the Washington Wizards in the playoffs. And that is part of what makes them feel good about the road ahead.
"I think this team is designed for the playoffs. I believe that the road that we have traveled so far has been a little bit erratic at times," Brown said afterward. "Whether it’s the infrequency of our five players, playing together, whether it’s navigating through some zone, at times some lost leads, you’re under a microscope trying to move this team forward, trying to get it whole and improve it. Can we keep the boys in the boat, continue to develop, improve, execute and stay healthy?"
It seems, as it always has through this set of eyes, that most of their concerns melt away if they get all caps JOEL EMBIID against the best of the best. There are a select few who can climb to the heights he reached on Wednesday, and he knows it.
"My goal is to get to the playoffs healthy, but if my team needs me, I’m going to show up," Embiid said Wednesday. "I’ve said that before and a lot of people have kind of forgotten, I guess, who I am. When I’m needed, I’m going to show up. God willing and hopefully, I’m going to be healthy for the playoffs and it’s going to be a different story."
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