Milwaukee Bucks

Joel Embiid gives Elton Brand what he wants on Christmas vs. Bucks, and suddenly things don't seem so complicated

Joel Embiid gives Elton Brand what he wants on Christmas vs. Bucks, and suddenly things don't seem so complicated

Life for Joel Embiid has sounded troublesome at times this season. He’s described a convoluted calculus including but not limited to “not trying to be a distraction to the team,” responding to nationally prominent critics like Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, making level-headed decisions when double teamed, and being his fun-loving self.

On Christmas, with the Milwaukee Bucks and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in town, everything crystallized into something coherent, joyful and dominant. 

Embiid outplayed Antetokounmpo by a wide margin in a 121-109 Sixers win (see observations). He scored 31 points (23 in the first half), pulled down 11 rebounds and, when he was the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, limited him to 1 for 9 shooting. Antetokounmpo shot 8 for 27 overall, his worst field percentage of the season. 

Embiid said playing against Antetokounmpo didn’t add any motivation to his performance. 

“No. Just play my game,” he said. “Like I said, my goal is to get to the playoffs healthy. But if my team needs me, I’m going to show up. … A lot of people have kind of forgotten, I guess, who I am. When I’m needed, I’m going to show up. But God willing, hopefully I’m healthy for the playoffs, and it’s going to be a different story.”

Those comments might not sit well with many fans if they came after a loss. However, they indicate Embiid has perhaps found a guiding principle. The standard for when his team “needs him” won’t always be as obvious as it is when the Sixers are playing on Christmas against the team with the best record in the NBA, and against a freakish player. The Sixers would likely prefer that potential gray area, though, over their All-Star center seeming lost and confused about how to approach the regular season. 

In a pregame press conference, general manager Elton Brand also provided a simple mission statement on what he wants from Embiid.

“I want Joel to have fun,” he said. “I want him to show his love for the game — he loves this game. I want him to have fun, I want him to be himself out there, ride the energy of these fans, the spirit of these fans. We know how great this city of Philadelphia is, especially when it comes to supporting their sports teams. So, I want him to have a joy. I don’t want him to get fined, but I do want him to have fun out there and be himself. Be dominant out there.”

After the game, Embiid told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, “I want to be Defensive Player of the Year and I feel like tonight I showed it.”

He’s not the only Sixer who’s expressed a desire to win that award and flashed the skills to do so. Ben Simmons, who had three steals and two blocks vs. the Bucks, is also pushing for it

“I mean, [Tobias] wants it, too,” Simmons said. “But I want it. And J-Rich wants it. So hopefully we all keep that mentality.”

Any way to make everybody happy? Embiid, after a festive, celebratory afternoon, had an idea. 

“I hope we all win Defensive Player of the Year,” he said with a smile. “Obviously there’s only one that can win it. We’ve been a great defensive team the whole season. Everybody is unique in their own ways. Ben is going to get in the passing lanes, he’s going to guard the best guard on the opposing team most nights. And matchups like tonight, like I said, if I’m needed, guarding the MVP, Giannis. I hope we all win — it’d be great. But if we can’t all win it, I hope we all are on the First Team All-Defense.”

There will surely be new challenges for Embiid and his teammates in their final 49 regular-season games. They’ll need to address a few lingering ones, too, including the offensive fit with Embiid and Horford together and how things will work in the playoffs if Simmons remains an unwilling outside shooter.

For the time being, though, things don’t appear too complicated from Embiid’s perspective. 

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Joel Embiid turns in dominant performance vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks in Sixers' Christmas day win

Joel Embiid turns in dominant performance vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks in Sixers' Christmas day win

BOX SCORE

When GM Elton Brand spoke pregame, he faced a lot of questions about his team perhaps not living up to expectations.

With more performances like the one we saw on Christmas day those questions could go away in a hurry.

The Sixers took down the NBA-best Bucks, 121-109, delivering a nice present to a sold-out Wells Fargo Center Wednesday afternoon.

Thanks to a monster performance from Joel Embiid and red-hot three-point shooting, the Sixers built a 21-point halftime lead and didn’t look back.

The win improves the Sixers to 16-2 at home and 23-10 overall.

They hit the road for a back-to-back starting Friday in Orlando (7 p.m. NBCSP).

Here are observations from the win:

The Process bests the Freak

This may have been the most locked in we’ve seen Embiid all season. As you’ll recall last season, Embiid took a career-high 13 attempts from three in a 40-point performance in Milwaukee. The Bucks are a team that will clog the paint and take their chances on teams making threes. With that in mind, Embiid was taking them early and often, making 3 of 5 in the first half.

He was also just as dominant as we’ve seen in a first half this season. Milwaukee opted to guard him mostly 1-on-1 with soft double teams occasionally. That didn’t work well as Embiid beat up on Brook and Robin Lopez to the tune of 23 first-half points. The All-Star Center definitely had extra juice for this matchup, finishing with 31 points (11 of 21), 11 rebounds and two blocks in just under 29 minutes.

Perhaps even more impressively, Embiid was tasked with guarding reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and did a damn good job. Despite an uptick in the Greek Freak’s three-point shooting, it’s clear the way to guard is let him shoot from the outside (0 of 7 from three) and try to minimize his drives. He was just 4 of 14 in the first half and finished the game 8 of 27 for 18 points.

Harris and Richardson deliver

A lot of the credit for the Sixers building their massive advantage goes to Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson. Both players shot the ball extremely well and presented mismatch issues for Milwaukee.

As Harris has proven lately, he’s perhaps the most versatile scorer Brett Brown has had. He did his damage in the midrange, from three and in transition. Harris said from the moment he arrived here that he functions best in an offense that moves the ball well. The Sixers did just that Wednesday. Harris had 22 points on 8 of  16 including 5 of 7 from three.

Richardson was a sizzling 4 of 7 from three to start and looks to be recovered from that wrist injury he suffered a couple weeks back in Boston. As Brown has pointed out frequently, Richardson features a unique offensive skillset for this starting unit. He’s strong in the midrange and does well in the pick-and-roll. You can see the chemistry between Richardson and Embiid developing in that action. Richardson cooled after halftime, but still finished with 18 points.

Raining threes

The Sixers are not a prolific three-point shooting team. While they’re in the top 10 percentage wise, they’re in the bottom third of the league in attempts. They shot 11 of 22 from distance before halftime and looked good doing it. Given the opponent, this may have been the best the Sixers moved the ball all season.

Even as head coach Mike Budenholzer went to a zone in the third quarter, the Sixers shredded it, as Furkan Korkmaz hit three straight threes and the team continued to move the ball very well.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee is outside the top 10 in percentage but attempts and makes the third-most treys per game in the league. The Bucks were just 6 of 19 at halftime against a Sixers team that allows the fewest made threes in the NBA.

On Wednesday, this was one of the biggest differences in the game as the Sixers (21 of 44) held a decisive advantage over the Bucks (13 of 33).

Simmons good against a good team

It’s been an interesting season for Ben Simmons, who’s looked like an All-Defensive Team lock and made his first two NBA threes. He’s still likely not shooting enough for the Sixers to get to their ultimate goal — a big topic of conversation pregame.

With that said, you sort of got a blueprint of what Simmons’ role could look like when all the pieces around him are functioning at a high level. When Embiid is dominating and Harris, Richardson and Al Horford are shooting well from deep, Simmons can be an elite facilitator (14 assists). This was a strong performance. He picked his spots to attack but didn’t try to do too much and took care of the basketball. He had 15 points (7 of 10) and added three steals and two blocks. Maybe most impressively, he committed just two turnovers. As a team, the Sixers tied a season-low with eight.

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How will the Sixers guard Giannis Antetokounmpo in Christmas game?

How will the Sixers guard Giannis Antetokounmpo in Christmas game?

“The Greek Freak,” otherwise known as reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, awaits the Sixers on Christmas.

He’s averaging 31 points on 56.6 percent shooting, 12.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists. And, in three matchups vs. the Sixers last season, he totaled 129 points on 55.6 percent shooting.

How will the Sixers defend him? Here are six possibilities:  

Al Horford

Horford earned a reputation as one of the few players who could hang with Antetokounmpo. 

As the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, Horford limited him to 14 of 29 shooting from the floor last season. He then held him to 4 for 13 in Game 1 of the playoff series between Milwaukee and Boston before Antetokounmpo and the Bucks found their game, winning the next four.

Even if no player is physically equipped to stop Antetokounmpo, Horford at least has an advanced understanding of his strengths and weaknesses.

Joel Embiid

Brett Brown began thinking about how to use Embiid in “five-out” environments last year in training camp. 

One solution Brown found was using Embiid as the defender on players like Pascal Siakam and Antetokounmpo, instead of on a nominal center like Brook Lopez. Antetokounmpo shot 13 of 27 when guarded by Embiid in the final two Sixers-Bucks games last year, and Milwaukee’s surrounding shooters were collectively below par. 

There are several potential downsides of such an approach, including concerns that Embiid would expend excessive energy on defense or get in foul trouble. 

Ben Simmons

Simmons is averaging over two steals per game, has often guarded the opponent’s top threat — at least late in games — and is a very strong contender for an All-Defensive Team.

He’d seem to match up well against Antetokounmpo, right?

Perhaps, although Antetokounmpo made an interesting comment after scoring a career-high 52 points against the Sixers on March 17, the one game the Sixers won over Milwaukee in 2018-19. 

"It's easy," he said, per ESPN’s Malika Andrews. “I would rather Ben guard me than Joel. It's simple. If Joel's been guarding me all night and he's been making everything so tough on you, when someone switches on you — Jimmy [Butler] or Ben or [Mike] Scott or [Boban] Marjanovic — it's way easier."

Let him shoot 

A popular strategy against Antetokounmpo has been to play well off him and encourage him to fire three-pointers.

He’s recently been making opponents pay, however, and is hitting 44.4 percent of his threes (on 5.4 attempts per game) in December. 

Double him

While the Sixers might trust Embiid, Horford or Simmons to assume most of the responsibility vs. Antetokounmpo, they also could send frequent and aggressive help.

The Bucks, who are attempting the third-most threes in the NBA (39.6), are constructed to beat that strategy. Like just about every team across the league, they have some players off to hot starts (George Hill is hitting over 50 percent of his threes, Khris Middleton over 40 percent), and some off to cold starts (Pat Connaughton is at 31.3 percent, Lopez at 30.6). 

The Sixers could game plan to deny Antetokounmpo as much as possible and put things in the hands of those shooters.

Get creative 

If one of the above approaches doesn’t work well early, Brown could turn to something unconventional. 

He also could look to surprise the Bucks from the jump with a zone defense, half-court trapping, full-court pressure or some sort of audacious hybrid. 

Brown said Wednesday he might look to incorporate more defensive pressure on occasion.

“Maybe,” he said. “I think we’ve done little bits of that in the past. Is it something that we’re going to be? I don’t know. My mind is always driven toward what’s it going to look like in the playoffs? Is that a style of play that you really ever see? And the answer is no, you don’t. You see it in little dribs and drabs. I do feel like we have it in us to maybe extend our defense a little bit. I wouldn’t say that’s who we are.” 

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