Responding to Joel Embiid’s pre-game declaration on Tuesday that he’s back, Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers deadpanned: “I noticed.”
We did, too, in welcoming back Embiid to the top five of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Embiid checks in at No. 3, in part due to James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo missing time this week because of injuries.
“I’ve still got a long way to go to get back to where I was before I got hurt,” Embiid said, after dropping 35 points in dominating fashion to help the Sixers defeat the Boston Celtics 106-96 in just his second game back from a bone bruise in his left knee. “I’m not all the way there, but tonight was a big step.”
The victory over Boston lifted Philadelphia to a season-series sweep of the Celtics, the team that swept the 76ers in the first round of the 2020 playoffs. Embiid averaged 38.3 ppg and 9.0 rpg in the three matchups with Boston, and connected on 60.4% from the field, making him one of just three players around the league to accomplish that feat this season against the Celtics.
Coincidentally, the other two — Nikola Jokic and Kyrie Irving — can also be found among the top 10 in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Jokic retains the No. 1 spot, while Irving remains on the cusp of cracking the top five. He’s tied at No. 6 with Luka Doncic, who helped Dallas bounce back from a rough loss at Houston with a win Thursday against Milwaukee.
Harden falls back two spots to fifth, after missing three of his last four games with a strained right hamstring, and Antetokounmpo — having sat out of three consecutive contests with a sore knee — slips back a slot to No. 4. Damian Lillard narrowly clings to the No. 2 spot, but he might be on the way out of the top five after sputtering in three straight games.
Still, it’s a wide-open race now that Embiid’s back in the mix, and as you can see here, there’s still no real consensus on the favorite to win the Kia MVP, even among some of the league’s all-time greats. LeBron James did issue a warning through a cryptic post on Instagram that suggests he’ll soon be jumping back into the hunt, too, along with teammate Anthony Davis.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2020-21 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Season stats: 26.3 ppg, 10.9 rpg, 8.7 apg, 1.5 spg
No Jamal Murray in the lineup on Wednesday, but that didn’t stop Jokic and the Nuggets from capturing their seventh straight win, a 106-96 decision over the Spurs, as they rolled to 16-3 over their last 19 games. The most consistent player in the field of Kia MVP candidates, Jokic put together his 18th game this season with 25 points or more and 10-plus rebounds for a Denver squad that possesses arguably the most potent offensive trio (Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr.) in the league. Despite Murray sitting out the last two games due to right knee soreness, Jokic continues to carry the Nuggets.
2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Season stats: 29.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 7.7 apg
He’s struggled for three consecutive games, with the Blazers losing two in a row. But attrition keeps Lillard in this spot, considering the missed time and injuries to Harden and Antetokounmpo, not to mention the fact he’s gutted his way through various bumps and bruises, sitting out just two games the entire season. It’s worth noting that Portland is now 1-8 against teams currently sitting in the top five of the Western Conference. Lillard has shot 16 of 50 from the field his last three games and finished with his second-lowest scoring total of the season (11 points) Tuesday in a loss to the Clippers.
3. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Season stats: 29.9 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.4 bpg, 1.1 spg
There’s no doubt Philadelphia welcomed back Embiid with open arms, but as colleague Shaun Powell pointed out here: The Sixers had already proven adept at winning games without the star big man. Embiid certainly hasn’t missed a beat since his return, averaging 29.5 points in his two games back. Embiid knocked down an incredible 16 free throws in a win Tuesday against Boston, which as a team took a total of just 18 attempts from the foul line. Embiid claims he’s still trying to win the Kia Defensive Player of the Year, and that makes the man a terror on both ends of the floor.
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Season stats: 28.8 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.3 bpg, 1.1 spg
He missed his third-straight game Thursday due to left knee soreness, as the Bucks ruled out the two-time reigning Kia MVP approximately 90 minutes before tipoff in Dallas. Antetokounmpo has missed five of Milwaukee’s last 10 contests, but he’s scored 25 points or more in each of the last three games he’s been able to play, including a 47-point effort on April 2 in a victory against Portland. Is Antetokounmpo’s latest injury setback cause for concern? Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, “my gut is it’s not something that we’re overly concerned about.” So, we’ll see.
5. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
Season stats: 25.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 10.9 apg, 1.2 spg
Injuries immediately dropped LeBron James and Embiid down our list earlier this season. So, we’ll be consistent with Harden, considering the Nets announced Tuesday the star would be out approximately 10 days due to a right hamstring strain. Brooklyn plans to re-evaluate Harden after the initial timeframe it announced. So, Harden could miss somewhere in the neighborhood of five outings over the next couple of weeks, including a matchup against the Lakers on Saturday and an April 14 clash at Philadelphia. The hamstring already kept Harden out of the two games prior to him tweaking it Monday against the Knicks.
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The Next Five
T-6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
T-6. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
7. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
8. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
10. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
And five more: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat; Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans.
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