Giannis Antetokounmpo used his finger to mark a spot in a paperback “Dad Jokes” book before opening it up to read a quip nobody laughed at but him.
“What do you call a cow on the floor?” he asked.
“Ground beef,” Antetokounmpo said, chuckling.
Lame joke, for sure. But Antetokounmpo earned the right to tell it by serving up an impressive 40-piece to go with the game-clinching block on Joel Embiid in Tuesday’s race to the Kia MVP Ladder matchup, as Milwaukee seized sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference by way of a 118-116 win over Philadelphia.
In addition to his game-high 40 points, Antetokounmpo tallied 14 rebounds, six assists and three blocks to help the Bucks overcome James Harden’s biggest night as a Sixer (32 points, five rebounds, five assists), and a 29-point, 14-rebound night from Embiid that was accentuated by Tobias Harris’ contributions (22 points) and timely 3-pointers down the stretch by Georges Niang.
A two-time MVP, Antetokounmpo has now scored 30 points or more in seven of his last eight games and 32 times this season to boost his scoring average to 29.89 points per game, which ties Embiid for second in the NBA behind LeBron James (30.13 points per game).
“There’s gonna be times that you can take over the game. There’s gonna be times that you’ve just got to play, feel the game,” Antetokounmpo said. “No matter what happens, I have to stay aggressive because I know that’s what I want, that’s when I enjoy basketball the most. [There’s] not [a] moment throughout the game that I say, ‘I’ve got to take over the game right now.’ I just trust my instincts.”
Those certainly must’ve kicked in with 2:22 left in the third quarter, when Embiid headed to the Sixers bench to rest with Paul Millsap replacing him in the lineup. Philadelphia held a 10-point lead (82-72) at the time that swelled to 13 points just 12 seconds later on a 3-pointer from Danny Green.
From that point to the 10:36 mark of the final frame, Antetokounmpo scored 15 in a row to pull Milwaukee within four points.
When Embiid subbed back in with 9:22 remaining, the Bucks had cut the Sixers’ lead to two (93-91). Milwaukee then snatched its first lead since the second quarter just 22 seconds later on a Khris Middleton 25-footer that made the score 94-93.
“The game really changed when I went on the bench,” Embiid said. “At the end of that third quarter, beginning of the fourth, their best player scored – I don’t know – 17 in a row or whatever it was.”
A slow start by Embiid certainly didn’t help. Philadelphia led by as many as 14 points in the third quarter. But that came after Embiid started the game shooting 1-for-6 before catching fire in the second and third quarters, hitting 7-for-9 from the field and 1-for-2 from distance for 19 points.
Embiid’s remarkable recovery proved insufficient against a Milwaukee team that shot lights out when it counted most. The Bucks connected on 72.2% from the floor in the final frame for 37 points. Antetokounmpo hit 4-for-5 during that stretch for 12 points, while Jrue Holiday contributed 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting and Middleton knocked down 3-for-4 for 9 points.
Milwaukee shot 57.1% from 3-point range in the fourth quarter.
“We had a couple mistakes defensively, and they made us pay for it,” Harden said. “It seemed like they hit 3 after 3 after 3 off our mistakes.”
Now, Philadelphia sits a full game behind Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference standings, with the Bucks owning the tiebreaker after taking their fourth consecutive season series victory over the Sixers. Milwaukee has won nine of its last 12 meetings with Philadelphia over the past four seasons.
The latest chapter in this series might have provided a sneak preview of the 2022 Eastern Conference finals, while potentially shifting the complexion of a tightening Kia MVP race. The order varies day to day, maybe even hour to hour. But along with current holder Nikola Jokic, Embiid and Antetokounmpo are widely considered frontrunners for the Kia MVP Award.
Perhaps the optics of Antetokounmpo’s late heroics boosted the two-time MVP’s stock among voters.
“Just a special block,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
But it’s nothing we haven’t already seen. Remember this?
Harden misfired on a 25-foot stepback jumper with 4.8 ticks left with Embiid snagging the rebound and springing back up for a putback attempt. Embiid admitted he “probably should have gone up harder.” But as the ball left his hands, Antetokounmpo stepped in from across the paint and pinned it to the backboard with 1.6 seconds remaining.
Officials initially called goaltending, but a review revealed a clean block. Play overturned.
Instead of relishing in the moment and the important victory against one of the Eastern Conference heavyweights, Antetokounmpo set his sights on the journey ahead with preparation for the postseason at the forefront.
Is Milwaukee ready for the playoffs?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think we have seven more games, and we have an opportunity to keep building good habits in the last seven games. We’re playing Brooklyn, playing Boston… [the] Clippers. [We’re] playing good teams. So, it’s going to prepare us for the playoffs. Now [to the question of] if we are ready right now, I don’t know.”
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