MILWAUKEE - When you talk to people around the NBA about 76ers rookie Joel Embiid and Milwaukee's "Greek Freak," Giannis Antetokounmpo, the fourth-year forward, the praise laid upon the two is similar.
Monday at the Bradley Center, the two were vastly different. Embiid couldn't get himself going early, while Antetokounmpo couldn't be stopped. In the second half, no one could stop the Sixers' center, while foul trouble was the best defense against Antetokounmpo: He logged just over 10 minutes after intermission, while Embiid dominated and led the Sixers to a 113-104 win. The Sixers improved to 13-26 in winning for the sixth time in their last eight games.
Antetokounmpo lit up the Sixers for 21 points in the first half but was saddled with foul trouble for the second half and finished with only 23. Embiid, after a sluggish start, aggressively led the Sixers in a second half in which they outscored the Bucks by 67-50. Embiid finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks as the Sixers played without Nerlens Noel (sprained ankle), T.J. McConnell (sprained wrist) and Richaun Holmes (assigned to Delaware 87ers).
"The first half, I didn't have my legs, my legs were really heavy," said Embiid, who shot 13-for-18 from the line, both career highs. "I didn't play against Washington (Saturday), so I kind of get out of shape easily. In the second half, I just got it going. I rely on my defense to get my offense going. I think I played really well defensively.
"I have to follow what coach wants. Obviously, at the end of games, they want to foul me. I have to be a quarterback and try to move the ball. The main thing is about moving the ball. We want to move the ball, we want to share the ball, and that's how we've been playing and winning games."
Antetokounmpo's first-half outburst helped Milwaukee jump to a 54-46 lead at the break. The Sixers, however, with much more spirited play from Embiid, scored the first seven points of the third quarter to get back in the game. A short time later, Antetokounmpo was called for his fourth foul and went to the bench. The Sixers ended the quarter shooting 11-for-21 and outscoring the Bucks by 35-24 to take an 81-78 lead into the final quarter after Embiid swatted a layup attempt by Matthew Dellavedova at the buzzer.
The Sixers were aided early in the fourth when Embiid was able to draw the fifth foul on Antetokounmpo only 38 seconds in, sending him to the bench for close to a five-minute stretch. While the Sixers didn't capitalize at first, the Bucks' inability to maintain a fluid offense without their star enabled the Sixers to hold the lead and eventually expand it. When Antetokounmpo returned, the Sixers were ahead, 94-86, with 6:31 to play. They closed it out as Embiid had 12 points in the fourth quarter.
"I think he started the game very unlike Joel," coach Brett Brown said. "He really struggled. I thought the way he came on in the second half, particularly with his competitive, physical mind and the way he played, it really set the stage and set the table for our defense.
"That, to me, is our finest team win. To go to Jahlil Okafor before a game and say, 'I'm not going to go with you tonight, I'm going to go with Nerlens.' And then two minutes later, whoops. He didn't flinch and off he went. I thought he played and played hard and played well. He was a really big part of the reason we won. His attitude just continues to blow me away, given his age and what he's going through."
In his 20:09 backing up Embiid, Okafor made four of his five shots while collecting 10 points. Dario Saric scored 17 and Ersan Ilyasova added 12. Robert Covington and Gerald Henderson had 11 each, while Sergio Rodriguez and Chasson Randle each added 10.
"He's playing at a very high level," Bucks coach Jason Kidd said of Embiid. "To be away from the game and the minutes that he's playing, he is playing at a very high level. He causes a lot of problems. He can play inside and out, and you can see that he understands how to play the game the right way."
Jabari Parker added 23 for the Bucks, who fell to 20-20 in losing for the fourth time in six games.
Nerlens Noel said he had hurt his left ankle in Saturday's game at Washington, and it didn't respond in pregame workouts the way he would have liked, thus the late decision to not play. "I'm fine," he said. "I should be able to go Wednesday" at home against Toronto … The Bucks had won the previous nine games against the Sixers … The eight players in double figures for the Sixers was a season high … The Sixers outrebounded the Bucks by 51-38, the fourth time this season they've had 50 or more rebounds.