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Behind the impressive defensive numbers of Joel Embiid against Milwaukee and this season

Embiid had his best defensive game against Milwaukee reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Sixers center is second in the NBA in defensive win shares.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is called for a foul against Joel Embiid in the second quarter of a game at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. Sixers won, 121-109.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is called for a foul against Joel Embiid in the second quarter of a game at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. Sixers won, 121-109.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

For all his dominance on offense, it’s easy to overlook the defense of 76ers center Joel Embiid. With a national audience and a sold-out Wells Fargo watching on Christmas Day, Embiid was at his best on both sides of the ball in Wednesday’s 121-109 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

Embiid’s 31 points, including 14 in the first quarter, was impressive, but Sixers coach Brett Brown put him on Giannis Antetokounmpo and he stymied the 6-foot-11-inch MVP.

According to stats, Antetokounmpo shot 1 for 9 when being directly guarded by Embiid.

“I was just doing my best to stay in front of him,” Embiid said after the game. “He’s just so gifted, he’s fast and he’s extremely athletic. I was just using my length as much as I could.”

Last season, Embiid was a second-team, all-defensive player. After Wednesday’s win over Milwaukee, the drumbeat for him being named the NBA defensive player of the year started rolling.

Antetokounmpo has such great quickness going to the basket, yet Embiid was able to match it, which is another example of his outstanding athletic ability at 7-feet, 280 pounds. What hurt Antetokounmpo was his struggles from the perimeter. He was 0 for 7 from three-point range, including 0 for 3 with Embiid on him.

A few shooters, who threaten from the perimeter, have given Embiid some trouble on defense this year. For instance, Boston’s Enes Kanter has shot 11 for 16 in the two games with Embiid directly guarding him. Kanter only has attempted one three-pointer against Embiid, but he has hurt the Sixers with his mid-range game.

Denver’s Nikola Jokic is 8 for 12 with Embiid directing guarding him, including 2 for 5 from beyond the arc.

Antetokounmpo wasn’t a threat from beyond the arc against the Sixers, and it allowed Embiid and his teammates to play off him and better defend his drives.

Embiid set the tone for Antetokounmpo having a miserable 8 for 27 shooting day, but the Sixers and their center were also fortunate that the Bucks forward missed many easy shots.

According to stats, Antetokounmpo missed six shots from 3 feet and in.

That said, it shows the type of defensive talent that Embiid has. What is interesting is he had all this production while playing less than 29 minutes, due to a team-high five personal fouls.

It could be argued that this was the finest game of the season for Embiid and the Sixers. Yes, he had 38 points in a 115-109 win at Boston, but the Bucks have greater size in supposedly being able to combat Embiid.

When guarded by 7-foot Bucks center Brook Lopez, Embiid shot 4 of 11 from the field and 0 for 3 from three-point range, but he had greater success against Antetokounmpo (4 for 4 with a three) and 7-foot-1-inch Robin Lopez (3 for 4 and 2 for 2 on threes).

Defensive win shares is a metric that estimates the number of wins a player produces for his team due to his defensive ability. Entering Friday, Embiid was second in the NBA in defensive win shares (0.193) among players who have competed in at least 20 games. (Antetokounmpo, a first-team all-defensive selection last year, was first.)

The shots for Embiid and the team won’t always fall, but he has a chance to make an impact on the defensive end every night.

Notes: The Sixers, who did not practice Thursday, begin a four-game road trip with stops in Orlando on Friday and Miami on Saturday. ... On Nov. 13, the Sixers lost at Orlando, in a game Embiid sat out due to load management. … The Sixers are 1-1 against Miami, having lost 108-104 in their first home loss on Dec. 18. In that game, the Heat frustrated the Sixers by playing zone defense for a majority of the contest. …The Sixers are 10-5 with their starting lineup of Embiid, Ben Simmons, Al Horford, Tobias Harris, and Josh Richardson.