As Philadelphia flirted with a double-digit lead throughout most of the game, the Greek Freak’s Zeus-like effort kept his team within striking distance, as the team waited for one final offensive outburst we’ve been accustomed to seeing this season. Unfortunately, the Bucks were never able to get enough stops and the 76ers held off a somewhat furious fourth-quarter run.
Following in the footsteps of the Utah Jazz and Rudy Gobert, 76ers head coach Brett Brown matched Joel Embiid up with Antetokounmpo for most of the game. According to NBA.com’s matchup stats, which can be very tricky, Embiid defended Antetokounmpo 54.2 percent of the time. During those possessions, Antetokounmpo was 7-for-16, including 2-for-5 from downtown, for 23 points. Let’s check out how he attacked the menacing center:
Eric Nehm of The Athletic recently profiled Antetokounmpo in the pick-and-roll (PSA - content is paywalled) and we got an early look at it in this game. After Antetokounmpo rotates the ball to the wing, he sets a pick for Khris Middleton to receive the pass at the top of the key. Antetokounmpo continues by setting a ball screen for Middleton and delicately rolls to the soft spot in the lane. Middleton attacks the 76ers indecisiveness on the ball screen and gets deep into the paint before tossing it back to Antetokounmpo for the slam. This was a brilliant probe by Middleton who never had any intentions of taking a shot following the ball screen.
Antetokounmpo’s three-point shooting has been the talk of Milwaukee for a few months now. He’s found his stroke in 2019 and hit 3-of-8 from behind the arc in this game. Here, he hits his first one while being defended by Embiid.
Antetokounmpo will always have the outside shot available to him if he wants it. After a failed attempt at a two-man game with Middleton, he probes the defense from the free throw line. Ultimately, he decides it’s best if he pulls it out to create more space. When Embiid doesn’t come with him, he smoothly lines up a three-ball and cashes it in.
A couple minutes later, Antetokounmpo is clearly feeling it.
With Milwaukee barely hanging on and down 11, Antetokounmpo tried to will his team back into the game. Following a missed shot, he brought the ball up the left side of the floor. With Embiid calmly backpedaling to the elbow, Antetokounmpo felt the disrespect and buried another three from the left wing. Yak Yak!
Antetokounmpo started the third quarter the same way he finished the second.
As we found out later in the game, Antetokounmpo doesn’t think much of Ben Simmons’s defensive ability. The Greek Freak smells blood in the water here and goes right at the 76ers point guard.
With Antetokounmpo quickly bringing the ball up the left side of the floor, Simmons and Embiid communicate to switch assignments. This leaves Embiid guarding Brook Lopez at the top of the key with Simmons one-on-one down low. Because Simmons doesn’t pick Antetokounmpo up right away, the Greek freak is able to get all the way to the left block before Simmons even puts a body on him. That’s way too deep for a player as talented and strong as Antetokounmpo.
Embiid danced with Antetokounmpo by acting as if he was going to dig on the post-up. However, his main concern was Lopez on top and he was never going to stray too far away from his assignment. Antetokounmpo knew this and took his time. He hit Simmons with a powerful dribble toward the middle to improve upon his already great post position. He then shoulder-shrugged toward the baseline before hitting a baby hook over his left shoulder. Too easy.
Now, it was Embiid’s turn to get taken to school. One of the disadvantages of playing so far off the ball-handler is it allows them to build a head of steam and play downhill. It then becomes much more difficult for a backpedaling defender to guard someone who has built up speed. That’s exactly what happened here.
Embiid sagged off to the elbow with Antetokounmpo bringing the ball up the floor. Antetokounmpo crossed left-to-right and took one hard dribble toward the baseline before crossing back over to his left and toward the middle of the floor. He then used his shoulder to create some space and hit a tough, one-footed fadeaway for his 26th point of the game.
After Simmons and Embiid each had their runs, it was now Boban Marjanovic’s turn. Predictably, Marjanovic didn’t prevail all that well.
By this point, Antetokounmpo was feeling himself and attacking with no regard for human life. This move is eerily similar to the one we just saw in the previous clip against Embiid except for the finish. Instead of putting his shoulder into Marjanovic to create room for the fade, he used his shoulder to create room at the rim. As Marjanovic reaches for the ball, Antetokounmpo powers through him for the loud one-handed slam.
In case he wasn’t 100 percent sure before, Antetokounmpo knows he can impose his will on the 76ers backup big man. Bucks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer calls for their 1-4 high-low set with D.J. Wilson setting a ball screen for Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks intentionally searched out this matchup with Marjanovic on Antetokounmpo with the ball screen. Following the switch, the Greek Freak probes his new defender for a second before pulling the ball back out. However, this is only to give him a little more space to gather speed as he expertly attacks his defenders inside shoulder, drawing the harm and the basket.
With Milwaukee trying to make one last push, they went right back to the 2018-19 MVP. Antetokounmpo gets the smaller and weaker Simmons matched up on him in the post and the rest is a highlight film. Giannis is no baby on this slam.
Simmons does a better job of making Antetokounmpo work here and doesn’t allow him to catch the entry pass quite so deep. However, Antetokoumpo takes two power dribbles, backing Simmons down under the hoop and slams it through for the and-one. He picked up a couple more dunks over the last minute, as the 76ers were trying to prevent threes and finished with 52 points in the contest.
Philadelphia was content with Antetokounmpo beating them for most of the night as long as his teammates didn’t get going. It’s a similar strategy we saw the Boston Celtics apply in the first round of the 2018 NBA playoffs when they defeated Milwaukee in seven games.
There is certainly a glimmer of hope for Bucks’ fans, as Milwaukee had an off game from behind the arc. If players such as Lopez, Middleton or Nikola Mirotic can get it going from downtown, this is a whole different game. The Bucks battled despite clearly not having their best stuff. That’s what champions are made of and why this loss shouldn’t dampen playoff aspirations.