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Giannis Antetokounmpo lets play do all the talking vs. Joel Embiid

Sixers All-Star center had declared himself 'the best player in the world' on Thursday

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

MILWAUKEE — After the Milwaukee Bucks throttled the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday at Fiserv Forum, Giannis Antetokounmpo let the self-proclaimed “Best Player in the World” off the hook.

After, but not during. Not while the action was on the court.

Three nights earlier, Joel Embiid’s mouth had gone into overdrive after the Sixers beat Brooklyn in OT, at one point stating matter-of-factly that he was the world’s best basketball player.

But Embiid was grounded in this one, settling for 17 points on 5-of-18 shooting, with 11 rebounds, four assists, four turnovers and one block. He sat with two quick fouls after halftime when the Sixers could least afford it – sidekick Ben Simmons checked out early in the first quarter with renewed back pain – and the Best Player in the World wound up minus-18 for the game.

Once the thrashing was complete, a reminder of Embiid’s big talk was lobbed up to the league’s reigning MVP afterward like a fat pass, ready to be flushed. Antetokounmpo, metaphorically speaking, settled for a layup.

“I know that you’re trying to do your job,” Antetokounmpo said, smiling. “You want me to say something but it’s going to go viral and he’s going to see it, and then it’s going to be a battle.

“But I feel like Joel is a great guy. Obviously, when I go on the court, I’m gonna go as hard as I can. But off the court, I like him. I like his personality. He’s a down-to-earth guy.”

Antetokounmpo, finished with 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, with 17 rebounds, eight assists, four turnovers and one block – in just 29 minutes. He worked his magic with former Bucks legend Oscar Robertson sitting near the home bench, and walked off at plus-27 in the blowout victory. The Bucks are now 26-3 at home; the Sixers, an alarming 9-20 on the road.

So this would have been a perfect time for Antetokounmpo to gloat. But the Greek Freak went high rather than low.

“Every NBA player should feel like he’s the best player,” Antetokounmpo said. “Who am I to tell him he’s not the best player in the world? Who are we to tell him he’s not the best player in the world? Everybody should feel that way.

“But at the end of the day, you’ve got to go on the court and – if you feel that way – you’ve got to show it.”

Zing. It was late, it was subtle. But there it was.

“I’ve got to be that guy,” Embiid said, after not being that guy.

The All-Star center’s worst stretch coincided with Antetokounmpo’s best. Embiid picked up his third and fourth fouls in the first 46 seconds of the third quarter and went to the bench for the next five-plus minutes. “The death knock,” Sixers coach Brett Brown called it, after his team’s fairly solid first half.

Antetokounmpo scored the Bucks’ first 11 points of the half, then assisted on four of Milwaukee’s next six field goals.

By the time Embiid checked back in, his team trailed by 15. By the start of the fourth, it was 93-73.

Antetokounmpo twice did a little shimmy after scoring that seemed to mock some of Embiid’s dance moves in other games. It easily could have been a statement, given the mileage Philadelphia got out of beating Milwaukee on Christmas at Wells Fargo Center (Antetokounmpo shot 8-for-27 with Embiid often defending him) and what Brown referred to as the “growing competitive history with those two.”

Antetokounmpo demurred on the shimmy stuff. “Who does that?” he said, thinking for a moment. “Steph [Curry] does that.”

Bottom line: If Embiid is indeed The Best Player in the World, maybe Antetokounmpo is simply extraterrestrial.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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