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Joel Embiid Reminds NBA Giannis Isn't the Only MVP Candidate out East

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 26, 2019

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - DECEMBER 25: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks attempts a basket as Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers defends during the first half of the game at Wells Fargo Center on December 25, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo entered Christmas Day as a solid (if not overwhelming) favorite to win the 2019-20 MVP.

Basketball Reference's MVP tracker had him at a 49.3 percent chance of securing the NBA's top individual award, with second-place James Harden at 26.9 percent.

Joel Embiid, Giannis' opposite on Christmas Day, entered the action with a 0.6 percent shot at the honor.

Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers center looked like the leader in the clubhouse, posting 31 points on 11-of-21 shooting, 11 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. He was a plus-15 in a game the Sixers won by 12.

Perhaps more important than the numbers was how Embiid looked when matched up with Giannis.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Embiid told Giannis to sit down 😬 (via @NBA) https://t.co/WFhj07nznX

On several occasions, Antetokounmpo and Embiid came face-to-face for confrontations at the rim. Over and over, Philly's leading scorer and defensive anchor prevailed.

Giannis hit two of his first three shots, including a finger roll that dropped after he shrugged off Embiid under the rim. But he was shut down after that. He tried a similar move at the start of the second quarter, spinning into Embiid and trying to knock him off balance. This time, Embiid hung in there, took the shot and forced a miss from just outside the restricted area.

A couple of possessions later, he forced Giannis to bounce around on his pivot foot (likely a missed travel) in the lane before hoisting a fadeaway that clanged off the backboard and side of the rim.

It was mostly misses from there on out for the Bucks star. 

Against just about any team, Giannis has the ability to Eurostep around, finish over or run through defenders on the way to buckets.

Embiid wasn't having any of it.

StatMuse @statmuse

The Sixers defense gave Giannis a present to remember this Christmas. 🎁 0-7 from three (ties career low) 🎁 23-game streak with a three snapped 🎁 minus-18 in +/- (season low) 🎁 8-27 shooting (season low FG%) 🎁 2-11 when guarded by Embiid https://t.co/RAxTy2vyQ3

Philly's big man may be better equipped than anyone to stay in front of Giannis, absorb contact and maintain his ability to contest. His size and strength are the obvious attributes he brings to that matchup. His lateral quickness and footwork may be every bit as important.

Chief among all of that, though, might be the intangible.

For much of this season, something just felt off with Embiid. His zero-point game on Nov. 25 was the biggest indicator. And a couple of weeks later, he confirmed it.

"I have not been having fun like usually," Embiid said of his ongoing maturation process in early December, per The Athletic's Derek Bodner. "... So I just need to be myself, and I guess do whatever I want because when I'm having fun I dominate."

On Christmas Day, Embiid was himself. And he was dominant. Now the key is being this player when it matters most. He discussed that possibility on the TNT broadcast postgame:

"Like I said, I've been humble the whole season. You know who I am. You know, I've been chilling basically the whole season. You know I'm trying to make sure I get to the playoffs, finally healthy, and that's my goal. So I'm gonna keep on doing whatever I'm doing, and when these guys need me, I'm gonna show up. But it's all about the long term. You know I'm thinking about the playoffs, and when we get to that time, we're gonna see a different side of me, but tonight was an example, so I just keep on building throughout the season and keep getting better. Once you get to the playoffs, we're gonna see."

Pacing himself makes sense given Embiid's struggles with durability over the years. But his Christmas Day dominance gave us a glimpse of potential for something else.

He was a force inside and out. On one of the first possessions of the game, Embiid sealed off Giannis in transition, burying him under the rim before making the catch and flipping it in against little resistance. His effort to run the floor set up that one.

Later, he had a textbook post-up on Robin Lopez: catch, bump, flawless turnaround jumper off the glass. Lopez didn't have a chance. Embiid's strength in there is enough to knock just about anyone on their heels. When he holds his ground, he gets easy looks.

And then, of course, there are the threes. He hit three Wednesday. And while some wonder whether he spends too much time out beyond the arc, hitting those shots is key for an offense engineered by Ben Simmons, a point guard who refuses to shoot. Embiid has the talent to invert the attack, forcing centers to cover the three-point line and opening up lanes for Simmons to drive.

When Embiid is this fun-loving, unstoppable version of himself, he is an MVP-caliber player. Wednesday, he had his sixth game of the season with a 25-plus game score. Only nine players have more. But he also has four games below 10 (and one at minus-8.4, the worst performance by anyone this season).

Saving a little bit for the postseason is fine, but the occasional stinkers must go. Even if Embiid can cruise along at somewhere around 90 percent for the rest of the regular season, he should climb up that aforementioned MVP tracker.

Finishing first in the East isn't out of the question for his team. Wednesday's game moved Philadelphia to within 4.5 games of Milwaukee in first. And the Sixers may be better equipped to make that ascent than any of the other East contenders.

Their size and athleticism can cause problems for the Bucks, whom they play three more times this season. If Giannis' still-inconsistent outside shot isn't falling, Embiid can drop back into the paint and protect the rim on drives. The added length of players like Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford makes them effective helpers on those drives. They can all take up space in front of the reigning MVP in a pinch too.

This isn't a suggestion that Philly will definitely win those next three games and storm all the way to first place. FiveThirtyEight's projection system still has the Bucks at six more wins than the next-closest team in the league by the end of the season.

But after Philly's decisive Christmas Day performance, this doesn't feel like an impossibility. And if Embiid plays at, or close to, this level on the way there, it's easy to see him getting back into the MVP conversation.

Giannis is the front-runner. Harden isn't going anywhere. A fun-loving Embiid could crash the party.