PHILADELPHIA — Before Tuesday night's matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the defending champion Denver Nuggets, 76ers coach Nick Nurse was asked about the top two finishers in the past three MVP races: 76ers center Joel Embiid and the Nuggets. Associate Nikola Jokic.
“Tonight's card is more than just a big heavyweight matchup,” Nurse said with a smile. “A little more going on.”
That might have been true. But both superstar big men lived up to their billing in the market.
It was Embiid who ultimately landed the knockout blow.
Embiid finished with 41 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists, while Jokic had 24 points, 19 rebounds — including 11 offensive boards — and 3 assists. But Embiid's 10 consecutive points in the fourth quarter proved the difference in a 126-121 win.
“I think we finally got some stops defensively,” Embiid said. “Especially at halftime, after both teams gave up 78 points apiece, we knew the first team to get some stops was going to have a good chance to win the game, and we were that team.”
Before his 41-point, 10-rebound performance against the Houston Rockets on Monday, Embiid had missed three straight games with knee soreness and seven of Philadelphia's past nine games with a sprained knee. But he was not listed on Tuesday's injury report against Denver.
Embiid's streak of at least 30 points and 10 rebounds ended at 16 games, tying him with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the most in NBA history by anyone not named Wilt Chamberlain, but that didn't diminish his dominance — especially in the final minutes.
Trailing by five to start the fourth quarter, the 76ers (26-13) were able to tie the score when Embiid and Jokic went back into the game with 7:28 left. Then, after Jokic and Tyrus Maxi traded baskets, Embiid scored 10 straight points to give Philadelphia the lead — a layup around Jokic at Euro, an and-1 jumper, a 3-pointer and another jumper.
“It was a game that went down to the wire,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We came a little bit. Joel [Embiid] A talent.”
It was a fitting end to a hugely entertaining game, in a game that saw both teams score 78 points in the first half in which, for large parts, defense was the option. According to ESPN Stats and Information Research, 156 first-half points were the most in a tied game in the shot clock era (since 1954).
But, after all, the head-to-head matchup of two of the league's best players was more than hyped. Embiid became the first opposing center to record more points and assists than Jokic this season, according to ESPN Stats and Information Research. April 4, 2023 Only Houston Rockets big man Alberan Sengun has done it over the past two seasons.
“They're probably two of the best players of our generation,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said.
Despite three straight battles for league MVP, Embiid and Jokic continue to hold each other in high regard. It was no different after Tuesday's game, with Jokic speaking highly of Embiid's play this season and saying Jokic deserves to be considered the best player after winning the NBA Finals MVP last season.
“He's a good player,” Jokic said. “He's having a historic game right now. He's averaging 30-something points every night, and that's hard to do, especially every night.
“But I mean, I'm not playing against him. I'm playing against Philadelphia. It was a good matchup.”
Embiid said: “We're both like, 'OK, we want to play basketball and win some games,'” he deserved. [the title of best player] Until you knock him out [off]. He was the Finals MVP. As long as someone else takes it, you can claim it.”
Afterward, Embiid smiled.
“But then again, I also believe in myself,” he said. “I'll keep it that way. I've got to get there.”
This gave the 76ers confidence that they could compete with the league's elite teams. The 76ers are 23-6 with Embiid in uniform this season, and now have wins over both Boston and Denver on their resume.
Embiid, who topped last month's inaugural edition of ESPN's MVP straw poll, is in pole position to claim the league's top individual honor for the second straight season. But he knows he will be judged on whether the 76ers can finally break through in the playoffs and advance to the second round.
“I don't care about people deciding who's the best,” Embiid said. “I know I want to be the best, and I'm going to do whatever it takes to be the best. But sometimes you can win as a team. You have to do a great job to make sure you do that. You put yourself and the team in the best position to win, and if you want to be the best, you To win… you have to find a way to win. So, that's my goal.
“I said it at the beginning of the season. You keep talking about Boston, Milwaukee. It doesn't matter. They might be better than us, they might be more talented than us, but I still believe we have a chance. We just need a little bit of luck.
“Like I always say, we've got to be perfect. We've got to sync together. We've got to play off each other. It's working really well this year.”
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