Phoenix Suns await battle with Joel Embiid

Phoenix Suns, Deandre Ayton and 76ers Joel Embiid (Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
Phoenix Suns, Deandre Ayton and 76ers Joel Embiid (Photo by Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports) /

The Phoenix Suns escaped with a victory over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night when Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a midrange jumper as time expired.

Saturday’s game against the Sixers brings a similar big-man challenge: Joel Embiid.

You thought Giannis was a load? Embiid is riding a serious roll, having scored scored 33 points or more in eight of his past 10 games.

The Phoenix Suns have to find a way to slow Joel Embiid when they host the Philadelphia 76ers and try to reach 8-1 over their past nine games.

Entering Friday’s games, only the Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz had a better winning percentage than did Philadelphia. At 18-8, the Sixers are coming off a loss to Portland and face the Jazz on Monday night.

Winners of five straight, the Suns probably need to employ a strategy to mitigate Embiid’s effectiveness. The plan to stop Giannis didn’t really succeed — except for the final play in which Deandre Ayton cut off Antetokounmpo’s path, forcing the pull-up.

Giannis finished with 47 points and hit 17-21 from the free-throw line.

But there’s no time to relax.

Ayton and Embiid already have a colorful history, beginning with draft night 2018 with the “don’t compare me to him” comments from Embiid.

Ayton later responded with a stick-figure drawing of himself dunking on Embiid, but the 7-foot, 280-pound three-time All-Star is bigger than Ayton and carries more experience.

Following the first-ever meeting with Embiid, Ayton was humble and hopeful.

“It was fun because I finally played against Joel Embiid,” Ayton said at the time. “Obviously he’s one of the unicorns in the league. How he used his body down low, I’m about to copy all of that.

“I’m just going to take that. I’m just going to steal it.”

Embiid turns 27 next month; Ayton, who is 6-11, 250 pounds, is still only 22.

In six career games against the Suns, Embiid has averaged 30.9 minutes, 28.7 points per game (52.3% shooting) and 11.7 rebounds per game.

Ayton has played the Sixers three times, also averaging 30.9 minutes while posting 14.3 points per game, 60% on field-goal attempts and 10.7 rebounds per game.

For the Phoenix Suns to keep pace with the Western Conference playoff contenders, though, this matchup with Joel Embiid can’t be a one-on-one plan.

With a huge hurdle cleared by beating Milwaukee, Suns coach Monty Williams likely will employ frequent double teams and a rotation of defenders including Frank Kaminsky and Jae Crowder to help.

The Suns’ previously stellar defense was exposed by the Bucks, and Phoenix has to be better against Philadelphia as the first-half schedule plays out.

On offense, the resurgent Devin Booker and the ageless Chris Paul (58 points combined vs. the Bucks) have to continue applying a proactive approach, forcing the defense to collapse and kicking it out to open shooters.

Cam Johnson has hit 10 of his 26 long-range attempts in the four games this month, and Mikal Bridges is 6 for 13 on his 3-point tries in February.

Next. A look back at the Suns' win over the Bucks. dark