Giannis Antetokounmpo lay on the floor after being stripped of the ball (and being inadvertently poked in the face) by Josh Richardson. Following a Bucks timeout, a few Milwaukee players and coaches wandered over toward their star.
Finally, he sprang off the ground, seemingly ready to charge at referee Tony Brothers. Head coach Mike Budenholzer put his body between Antetokounmpo and Brothers to guarantee the worst punishment the reigning MVP received was a technical foul. Antetokounmpo backed away with a look of disgust.
Christmas was a frustrating afternoon for Antetokounmpo, a player used to having his way. He had his worst shooting performance of the season (8 for 27) and was nowhere close to the best player on the floor for the day. That unofficial but obvious honor belonged to Joel Embiid, who scored 23 points in the first half, 31 in the game, and was tremendous as the main defender on Antetokounmpo. When Embiid guarded Antetokounmpo, he shot just 1 for 10, including four misdirected three-point attempts that Embiid was happy to let the Greek Freak attempt.
There were other moments and storylines that mattered in the Sixers' Christmas win over Milwaukee, which will re-air tonight at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia, but Antetokounmpo's loss of control is what defined the game.
Though he's only 25 years old, we can sometimes overlook just how good Antetokounmpo is because we've grown accustomed to his dominance. In just 30.9 minutes per game this season, he's averaged 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists. The Bucks are 53-12 overall, 48-9 when he plays. His 31.63 player efficiency rating this year is seventh for any season in NBA history - Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James and Michael Jordan are the players who sport better single-season PERs.
Embiid insisted that playing against Antetokounmpo didn't provide extra motivation.
"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."
The standard for when Embiid was "needed" wasn't entirely clear, but he, at least, seemed confident in that attitude. Instead of traipsing on a joyless path to the playoffs, he could play at his peak when the Sixers required him to be dominant.
Of course, Embiid was not the only Sixer who played well in a game which they led by as many as 29 points. Ben Simmons had 15 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds. Tobias Harris scored 22, Richardson 18. Every Sixers starter besides Simmons made at least three three-pointers, and the team hit a season-high 21 shots from long range.
The collective effort prompted Brett Brown to say, "I think this team is designed for the playoffs."
That was a major theme in Elton Brand's pregame session with reporters, too, when he was pressed on Al Horford's struggles alongside Embiid and the Sixers' poor play away from Wells Fargo Center. The road results were disappointing and "baffling," he said, but there was a larger vision he still believed in. His team then gave us a pretty good idea of what it looked like.
"I believe that the road that we have traveled so far has been a little bit erratic at times," Brown said. "Whether it's the infrequency of our five players playing together, it's still less than half the season we've had them. Whether it's navigating through some zone, at times some lost leads. It's like you're under a microscope trying to move this team forward and trying to get it whole and improve it. But I think the landing spot is exciting."
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