Joel Embiid learned a valuable lesson in Tuesday night’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the waning seconds. When you come at the king, you best not miss. Or at least go up for game-tying shots more aggressively when the king of weakside blocks is prowling.
As the clock ticked down to zero at the end of regulation, Embiid corralled James Harden’s stepback triple and quickly tossed up a game-tying layup. However, Giannis Antetokounmpo rotated over and swatted Embiid’s game-tying lay-up off the backboard like it was Chris Rock’s mug. Embiid stretched out to grab his own rebound, but the ball bounced off his fingertips. The play was originally called goaltending, but upon further review, officials ruled the block was legal, effectively sealing the win for Milwaukee.
Embiid logged a quotidian 29 points, seven assists and 14 rebounds. Antetokounmpo had an exceptional night, scoring 40 points, dishing six assists and grabbing 14 boards in 38 minutes.
In the process, they confirmed that they’re the supreme rivalry in the NBA right now and any postseason that doesn’t feature Embiid and Antetokounmpo squaring up for a seven-game series is a letdown. Cue up the Adam Silver “calling in the fix” meme. Whatever has to be done, the NBA has to do this again in the postseason. Durant and LeBron are in different conferences. Pat Bev and Russell Westbrook have personal strife that doesn’t belong on a playoff marquee. Jamal Murray’s rivalry with Donovan Mitchell is riveting but has the gravitas of a B-List battle.
Embiid and Antetokounmpo have whet our palettes before in their one-on-one meetings. In 11 career meetings against one another, Embiid has pitched in 27.9 points, 12.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists to Antetokounmpo’s 33.7 points, 14.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists. Their matchups are often decided by a slim margin. The last time they clashed, Embiid splashed shots from every corner of the floor en route to 42 points and 14 rebounds in a 123-120 victory.
Both men are at or near their career mountaintops now. Antetokounpo’s block somewhat deflated Embiid’s buoyant MVP bid in the final weeks of the regular season by boosting his own burgeoning case. Based on straw polls and media narratives, Embiid’s competition has been Denver Nuggets point-center Nikola Jokić. The reigning MVP has seemingly recaptured the attention of MVP voters in the last month. Jokić’s flexibility as an elite rebounder, playmaker and shotmaker has him positioned as the only player who is top 10 in scoring, assists and rebounds. Jokić’s status as the reigning MVP frontrunner is weighed down by Denver standing on the edge of the play-in.
If Antetokounmpo sneaks in to snatch Embiid’s MVP, this rivalry gains a pinch of extra seasoning. He’s hungry for hardware and Antetokounmpo may be standing in the way of just that. A Philadelphia win on Tuesday night would have put the 76ers in prime position to overtake Miami for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. The loss dropped them half a game back of Boston, a game back of Milwaukee and 1.5 games behind Miami.
Despite all the soap opera storyline drama and personal dynamics at play if Philadelphia clashed with Brooklyn in the postseason, a showdown between Giannis and Embiid is the matchup hoop heads deserve.
Both players are imported shot swatters averaging around 1.5 blocks a game,averaging identical points after 62 games played, are among the top rebounders in the league, and among only 3 players possessing Player Efficiency Ratings above 31. Giannis’ PER of 32.48 is second to Jokić, but ahead of Embiid’s 31.05. The fourth-highest PER this season by a qualifying player is LeBron James’ 26.44 PER. The bigs have taken over.
A segment of the NBA tabloid watcher community will feel cheated by not getting to witness Embiid and Simmons dance around each other like exes at the same wedding. Fortunately, that’s where James Harden comes in. Harden might be the only prominent NBA star who actively despises Giannis and the animosity is reciprocated.
Harden repeatedly expressed displeasure about not being named the MVP in 2019 by lambasting Antetokounmpo. He’s gotten defensive about losses to the Bucks and criticized Antetokounmpo as being unskilled. Antetokounmpo has also dissed Harden by casually discussing the Bucks strategy to target “whoever Harden is guarding” and trolled Harden again during the All-Star Selection Show by taking a dig at his reputation as ballhog.
Antetokounmpo has been fairly diplomatic recently, but Harden hasn’t. Their contentious history is bubbling underneath the surface waiting to burst during a tense, emotional seven-game series. Embiid has been thirsty for a title since Kawhi Leonard’s fadeaway bounced around the tin for eternity in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals sent them home packing.
Embiid’s next shot at King Giannis, will have to be in the postseason. Milwaukee started off the season slowly, but they’re demonstrating to the East why they’re the ones wearing the crown. To be the best, Embiid and the Sixers will have to beat them eventually.