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April 04, 2019

The Sixers have a Giannis Antetokounmpo problem, now and moving forward

Before the Sixers ever stepped foot on the floor for Thursday's game against Milwaukee, their head coach made it clear how absurd it is to deal with a player like Giannis Antetokounmpo in the modern NBA.

"You felt guilty thinking you did a good job [in the last meeting] and what did he have, 53? 52. Like I walked out of there so proud, we did a hell of a job on Giannis, and you look down and he's got 52," Brown said of the last time the teams met in mid-March. "There's something that doesn't connect there."

It was a lot more of the same on Thursday evening on the Sixers' home floor. Antetokounmpo gave the Sixers 45 more points, and he did it by simply overwhelming and overpowering every Sixers player that was not Joel Embiid. That is a problem for the Sixers if they should meet this team down the road.

To be fair, it is a problem for just about every player and team in the league. While he is not a big man the way we usually think of them, there are shades of young Shaquille O'Neal when you watch Giannis go to work. He plays the game with a constant physicality and is stronger than the vast majority of players he goes up against. When you are constantly taking the game at your opponent, you will almost always end up benefitting from the officiating.

In theory, the Sixers have a player who is fairly well-equipped to deal with Giannis in Ben Simmons. Brown spotlighted him as critical to their gameplan against the Greek Freak before the game, and given the size and athleticism gap between every other non-Simmons option, that would end up being the case by default.

But in practice, the Sixers are drawing dead pretty much every time Simmons ends up matched up with him. This is a good representation of what the Sixers are up against:

Simmons concedes the space to Antetokounmpo on the perimeter because it's the one are you'd choose to let him shoot from if you had to pick. But trying to goad him into the shot doesn't matter, because he takes the ball right at Simmons' chest, and he blasts him back several feet every time he puts a shoulder into him, eventually forcing a foul.

This happened over and over against non-Embiid Sixers and led to an amusing moment during Thursday's postgame media availability, with Embiid the podium taking questions about his first game back. After some discussion about his health, his performance, and a range of other topics, the topic of Giannis' free throws (he shot 16/21 from the line) came up:

REPORTER: For him to get 21 free throws, is there something you guys can do to keep him from getting that deep to get to the line as much as he was?

EMBIID: Stop fouling.

REPORTER: Was he just aggressive with the way he was drawing fouls?

EMBIID: [Looks down at box score] I mean, I think I only got like three fouls. I gotta foul less. My teammates gotta foul less. 

He's not wrong, but the Bucks put you in a real bind. They can put shooters all over the floor and either dare you to single cover Antetokounmpo as he goes to work inside or potentially give up an open three from the perimeter.

The Sixers may have to start considering throwing more hard doubles at him when Embiid is off of the floor. They take pride in their three-point defense, and the Bucks have eight different players in or around their rotation that shoot 35 percent or better from deep. The Sixers have succeeded in keeping down some of Milwaukee's role players, but in a seven-game setting, you'd probably prefer to test the nerve of a role player collection vs. letting one of the league's brightest stars tear you a new one.

That said, if you look at how they set up on possessions where Antetokounmpo succeeded in drawing fouls or blowing Sixers defenders away, it's not as though he was given all sorts of room to operate. In the above example of Simmons getting blown back, all five Sixers are touching the paint and ready to help.

There was a significant amount of attention on Simmons' offensive output (or lack thereof) against Milwaukee on Thursday, and I get it. When you're missing Jimmy Butler and the backup wing rotation consists of two rookies, there is plenty of room to assert yourself. Simmons shrinking into the background is not something this team can afford on the big stage.

The problem is the same there, by the way. When Simmons tries to take the game back at Giannis, the latter does not budge an inch:

But there is another side of the ball to worry about, too, and Simmons represents the only credible option to defend Milwaukee's best player that isn't Embiid. The big man can't play 48 minutes a night, nor should he be expected to chase around an athletic freak like Giannis on every possession without wearing down in some other way. 

The reason this is all notable is not just because the Bucks are the East's best team and an opponent the Sixers would have to get through to make a Finals appearance. It is an especially big problem because he may not be going anywhere over the long-term. This is not an aging star or a guy cycling out of his prime. He is nearly nine months younger than Embiid and represents a potential roadblock for the entire league for the next decade-plus.

Right now, they have one option to slow him down, and it's the guy they ask to save the world every second he's on the floor. This organization has invested a ton to acquire more star power, and they'll need to invest even more to keep it. Yet it's somehow always Embiid who is asked to put out fires other players are incapable of dealing with.

Whether it's Simmons bulking up, investing resources on something other than four backup centers, or tweaking the gameplan to slow Giannis Antetokounmpo down, the Sixers are going to have to figure this out at some point. This dude isn't going anywhere.

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