PHOENIX — Joel Embiid was asked Sunday night if he has an on-court rivalry with Milwaukee Bucks star and friend Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It was an obvious question because of the battles the 76ers and Bucks have had in recent seasons and the roles the perennial All-Star talents played in those contests.
“Nah,” Embiid said. “When I play, it’s to dominate anybody. He doesn’t guard me. I guard him. So it’s really no rivalry.
“I just try to go out there and make the plays necessary every game. If it’s against Milwaukee, make the plays necessary to get the win.”
While they’re not individual rivals, there’s no denying that a lot could be on the line during Tuesday night’s matchup at the Wells Fargo Center.
Not only is this another barometer game for the Sixers, but the winner would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker (both teams are 46-28) and the expected matchup between Embiid and Antetokounmpo could help determine the league MVP. Embiid is the favorite to win the award. Antetokounmpo, who is listed as questionable for Tuesday’s game with right knee soreness, is still in the running for the award.
Like Phoenix, Milwaukee is an NBA title contender capable of exploiting the weaknesses of the Sixers, who must execute better than they did in Sunday’s 114-104 loss to the Suns.
“We just have to know what we are doing offensively and defensively,” Embiid said. “Yeah, execution.”
The Sixers’ efforts to correct their mistakes shouldn’t be the lone motivation against the Bucks.
The Sixers are second in the Eastern Conference standings with eight games remaining. The defending NBA champion Bucks are third because if a tiebreaker.
Tuesday’s matchup will be the third and final meeting between the teams and the winner would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker, which would be an asset in Eastern Conference seeding.
But this will mark the first time James Harden plays against the Bucks as a Sixer. He missed the Feb. 17 contest for left hamstring recovery after being acquired via a trade from the Brooklyn Nets on Feb. 10.
While Harden is one of the NBA’s all-time great players, national attention will be placed on the play of Embiid and Antetokounmpo. And with just cause.
Not only are they MVP contenders, they’re locked in a three-player battle with Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James for the scoring title.
James is averaging a league-best 30.1 points per game. Embiid is second at 29.9 and Antetokounmpo is third at 29.7.
In addition to ranking second in scoring, Embiid is seventh in rebounding (11.43) and ninth in blocks (1.54). The big fella finished with 37 points and 15 rebounds in Sunday’s loss, marking his 25th game with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds this season.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo is sixth in rebounds (11.65), 10th in field-goal shooting (54.9%) and 10th in blocks (1.4) in addition to being third in scoring. The two-time league MVP has scored 30 or more points in six of his last seven games and 31 times this season.