There’s nothing like a heavyweight fight that lives up to the hype. When the eyes of the entire sport are on the bout and there’s a history between the fighters, you hope it’s worth the price of admission.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid are arguably the two most physically dominant players in basketball. While they typically don’t face each other 1-on-1 a ton throughout their matchups, there was still plenty of intrigue for Sixers-Bucks last Friday in Philadelphia.
And it didn’t take long for them to exchange blows.
Less than two minutes into the game, Giannis got Embiid on a switch. You could put together a highlight reel of the seven-foot, (listed) 280-pound Embiid locking up perimeter players on switches — but this would not make the cut. Antetokounmpo shook Embiid with a sick move and threw down a powerful dunk for an and-one.
A few minutes later, after the players were seemingly trading buckets, Antetokounmpo blew by his man and rose up for a layup to his left. This time, Embiid swallowed that attempt, much to the delight of the crowd.
The Sixers would go on to win the game, avenging Milwaukee’s victory during Philly’s home opener a few weeks ago, but any fan of basketball watching that night was a winner.
“You love watching your own guy in Joel,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame. “Giannis is a guy that, listen, if you get a chance to watch him, you should watch him. He just plays right and plays hard every night.”
One of the keys to the Bucks’ previous victory over the Sixers was Brook Lopez. While the 34-year-old is having a renaissance season offensively, making up for the absence of three-time All-Star Khris Middleton, he seems to have reached his pinnacle as a defender during his 15th NBA season.
While it came out not long after that prior matchup that Embiid was not in optimal shape after suffering from a summer bout with plantar fasciitis, Lopez was outstanding. He held the 2021-22 scoring champ to 15 points on 6 of 21 from the field.
And for most of the night last Friday, it looked like Lopez would again get the better of Embiid, who had just 13 points on 5 of 12 from the field in the first half. While Lopez has excelled at using his monstrous frame to contest Embiid’s attempts at the rim, he’s conceded the midrange shot to the five-time All-Star.
Embiid’s usage and proficiency from the midrange have been a huge part of his leap from All-Star to perennial MVP candidate. Over the last four years, Embiid has been in the 95th percentile or better among bigs for midrange frequency, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s hitting 51.2 percent of his midrange shots this season, which would be a career high.
In the second half, Embiid was 7 of 14 for 19 points. In the final 3:03 of the game, Embiid nailed three midrange shots and found Shake Milton for a wide-open dunk as the Bucks’ defense was focused on the big man.
The Process was dealing.
“The midrange is an area where [Embiid is] comfortable,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said postgame. “He got in a little bit of a rhythm. They got him the ball and he delivered baskets down the stretch. That’s why he’s a great player.”
While the night didn’t go Antetokoumpo’s way, it wasn’t for lack of effort. Giannis has gained a reputation for being one of the hardest workers in the NBA.
Watching him warm up pregame and walk across the Wells Fargo Center floor, it’s hard to think of a player that has a more befitting nickname. The Greek Freak’s long and sinewy frame is most definitely freakish.
The progress of the soon-to-be 28-year-old is wild. He was taken 15th floor overall in 2013 with little fanfare. A couple MVPs and a Finals MVP later and now it’s just a question of how high Giannis ends up when people discuss the GOATs.
While Antetokounmpo recently downplayed the notion that he was “the face of the league,” there are plenty of arguments to the contrary.
“He has like winner spilling off of everything he does,” Rivers said, “everything he says in his press conferences, which I think he’s the best guy in the league in press conferences, just listening to all the team things he says.”
Last Friday wasn’t Giannis’ finest moment — on or off the floor.
Struggles at the free throw line have crept up recently. It was particularly brutal against the Sixers, where he hit just 4 of 15 from the charity stripe. It led to elated chicken-nugget crazed fans and a bizarre postgame incident.
All of it stems from a maniacal mindset to get better.
“Any time he has a little bit of adversity, he’s going to work on it, he’s going to get better,” Budenholzer said. “I’m sure there’s a level of frustration for him. I think he’s got to get to a good mental space, stick with his routine, stick with what he’s doing. He’s proven he can make free throws, and he’ll work through it. That’s the exciting thing for me. He’s such a worker, and he’ll work through it.”
Of course, Embiid is no stranger to adversity or people questioning some of his actions. After the Sixers lost to the Bucks earlier this season, he left the arena without addressing reporters.
It was a different story postgame Friday.
“The points don’t matter,” Embiid said. “The wins are what matter. I’m just happy that since I came back, we’re winning. … Like I always say, whatever it takes, whatever I’m needed for. ... Offensively and defensively, just trying to take my game to where I can help my teammates.”
As the great Ric Flair once said, “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” There’s no question Embiid wants what Giannis has — more so the championship ring than the MVPs. Embiid will likely have to go through the Greek Freak to get it.
Who’s ready for the rematch in Milwaukee on March 4?