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Joel Embiid outduels Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the 76ers show how good they can be

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo suffered through his worst shooting night in more than a year during a Christmas Day loss to Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Giannis Antetokounmpo stared blankly ahead late in the third quarter, chewing on a towel as he pondered a rare role reversal. Minutes later, he punched his fist toward a referee after being raked across the face, the anger at a no-call and the frustration of a humiliating afternoon painfully evident.

The Milwaukee Bucks have pounded opponents all season, entering Christmas with the NBA’s best record and top point differential. Their offense ranked second, their defense ranked first, and they already had won eight games by 20 points or more. They have been so dominant that they went 36 days during one stretch without suffering a defeat.

Yet it was Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and his Bucks who were on the wrong end of a beatdown Wednesday, when Joel Embiid and the host Philadelphia 76ers blitzed them, 121-109. While the 76ers have faced questions about their inconsistency, their lack of spacing and the logic behind their big-ball lineups, they dealt the Bucks their worst loss of the season while flashing their own championship blueprint, which relies upon MVP-caliber play from Embiid, a physical interior defense and enough outside shooting to keep up with higher-powered offenses.

“This team is designed for the playoffs,” 76ers Coach Brett Brown said. “I like some of the things I’ve seen [us do] against the best teams.”

Philadelphia has waffled between impressive and disappointing this season, but Christmas stood as a new high-water mark. Embiid posted a team-high 31 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks. The two-time all-star center also played a key role in limiting Antetokounmpo to just 18 points on 8-for-27 shooting, his least efficient shooting performance in more than a year.

The 76ers are better equipped than most teams to deal with Antetokounmpo’s combination of strength, length and improved playmaking. Brown can deploy Embiid, Al Horford and Ben Simmons on Antetokounmpo to give him different looks, and Philadelphia’s massive front line did well to take away the area near the basket. Antetokounmpo finished with just four free throw attempts and was just 6 for 17 on shots in the paint, with Embiid directly challenging many of those attempts.

“The whole season I’ve been humble, but I want to be defensive player of the year,” Embiid said in a postgame interview on the ABC broadcast. “I think tonight showed it. I have to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

As the 76ers’ defense shadowed the Bucks’ franchise player, Philadelphia’s offense delivered in explosive fashion from beyond the arc on the other end. Despite ranking just 24th in three-pointers per game entering Wednesday, the 76ers shot a blistering 21 for 44 from beyond the arc to tie a franchise record for made threes.

There was no easing into the holiday for the 76ers, who scored 38 points in the first quarter and had 69 points by halftime. All five of Philadelphia’s starters finished in double figures, with Tobias Harris scoring 22 points and hitting a dagger three-pointer to stave off a desperate Milwaukee comeback attempt. Furkan Korkmaz provided a key scoring boost with 16 points, including four three-pointers, off the bench.

But it was Embiid’s offense that proved decisive. Milwaukee loaded up its frontcourt by signing Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez over the past two summers, yet the 7-foot twins had little hope of stopping Embiid. His dazzling night had a little bit of everything: Embiid drained open threes, fought hard to establish deep post position, executed smooth midrange jumpers, drop-stepped into contested turnarounds and flushed lob passes.

Few NBA players are serious candidates to be the MVP or the defensive player of the year, and even fewer can aspire to both awards. Antetokounmpo has been on the short list of candidates for both awards all season, but Embiid’s tour de force on Christmas was a reminder that he has the talent and the imposing presence to reach similar heights. Simply put, he was clearly better than Antetokounmpo on both ends of the court Wednesday.

“A lot of people have kind of forgotten who I am,” Embiid said. “When I’m needed, I’m going to show up. God willing, hopefully I’ll be healthy for the playoffs and it will be a different story [than last year].”

Antetokounmpo and Embiid are now split 3-3 in head-to-head matchups after Philadelphia drew first blood this season, and the two superstars have never squared off in the playoffs. Though their shared history is short, it includes memorable moments: Antetokounmpo poured in 45 points against the 76ers this past April, and Embiid had 40 against the Bucks in March.

The takeaway from the 76ers’ splendid holiday performance should be clear: Antetokounmpo and Embiid are the East’s two premier players, and their individual matchup will almost certainly determine who represents the conference in the NBA Finals come June.

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