Kia Race To The MVP Ladder

Kia MVP Ladder: Joel Embiid boosts his case, but remains at No. 2

Nikola Jokic maintains the top spot, but Joel Embiid is lurking in our weekly review of Kia MVP contenders.

Joel Embiid made his Kia MVP case heard in a resounding win Saturday against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets.

Trekking the reactionary route after Joel Embiid’s 47-point stunner against Nikola Jokic seemed reasonable in the aftermath, but a deeper dive shapes the lack of major movement in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

No disrespect to Embiid, the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January.

But in the words of the great Kevin Durant, coach Doc Rivers served as “the real MVP” Saturday for an adjustment that wreaked havoc in the second half of Philadelphia’s 126-119 win against the Denver Nuggets.

“Listen, Joel was phenomenal,” the coach said. “He had 47 points. But we don’t win the game if P.J. Tucker doesn’t play.”

Joel Embiid scores 47 points to lead the 76ers to a win over the Nuggets.

Facts, no doubt. Yet it’s important to make clear Embiid still put together the type of statement performance Saturday that he’ll need to continue moving forward to oust Jokic, the Western Conference Player of the Month for January, from the top perch in the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder.

In the victory over the Nuggets, Embiid became just the 10th player in NBA history to produce 47 points, 18 rebounds and five assists in a game, pouring in 28 second-half points — including 12 in the fourth quarter — to create his ninth 40-point outing of the 2022-23 campaign and 35th of his career.

Rivers aided the endeavor by deploying Tucker in the second half as an on-ball menace to the reigning back-to-back MVP.

“The way he played in the second half was extraordinary,” Rivers said.

It was also necessary, given that Jokic reeled off 16 points over the first two quarters on 6-of-7 shooting, including 2 of 2 from 3-point range, to go with five assists against Embiid (8-of-17 shooting for 19 points with 11 rebounds in the first half) as Denver entered halftime leading Philadelphia 73-58 after shooting 66%.

To start the second half, Rivers consummated the move that would alter the trajectory of the game.

The 76ers' Joel Embiid is the January Kia NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Month.

“We just felt like at halftime, we weren’t up into him,” Rivers said of Jokic. “He was catching it where he wanted to catch it. In the first half, he caught everything on the elbows and low.”

Over the next two quarters, though, Jokic and the Nuggets took their second loss over their last four games, thanks to Tucker flustering Jokic with relentless on-ball intensity that accomplished a couple of objectives for the 76ers. By assigning Tucker to Jokic, Rivers freed up Embiid to patrol the paint freely while spying the two-time MVP and adding an extra layer of protection at the rim. That allowed Philadelphia to jam the paint and prevent Jokic from facilitating by finding teammates cutting to the cup.

Denver would commit eight turnovers, including six from Jokic, for 15 Philadelphia points in the second half, as the Nuggets coughed up a 15-point advantage on a 12-0 Sixers run in the third quarter that ended on a trio of Embiid free throws.

“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality.”

Embiid led that onslaught, draining 5 of 8 for 12 points in the decisive final period. The runner-up for the Kia MVP these last two seasons drilled a 28-foot stepback 3 with 30.1 seconds left to give Philadelphia an eight-point advantage in closing out a 28-point second half against a clearly overwhelmed Jokic, as the Sixers limited Denver to 46 points in the final two quarters.

With Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic leading the Kia NBA MVP discussion, the need for dominant centers may be back.

Subdued in postgame interviews, Embiid lived up to his billing in this clash as arguably the most dominant big man of the current generation. But two nights later, Philadelphia fell 119-109 at home to the Orlando Magic to snap a seven-game win streak, while Denver captured victories in its next two contests to maintain its lead in the Western Conference at 36-16.

With Embiid nipping at his heels, Jokic clings to the No. 1 spot in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, while the former holds steady at No. 2. After dropping 54 points in a 106-105 win over the LA Clippers on Thursday, Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo inches back up to third on the list, followed by Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic, who left in the third quarter of a Dallas’ win over the New Orleans Pelicans with a right heel contusion after scoring 31 points in 27 minutes.

And now, the Top 5 in the 2022-23 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:

1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Last week’s ranking: No. 1

Season stats: 25.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 10.1 apg

The triple-double machine is now averaging a triple-double this season, producing his league-leading 17th triple-double Thursday with 22 points, 14 rebounds and 16 assists in a 134-117 win Thursday against the Golden State Warriors. The outing marked Jokic’s eighth triple-double in his last 10 contests and his 14th in his last 23 games, too. He is now one of just seven players in NBA history to post back-to-back games of 20 points or more, 10-plus rebounds and 15-plus assists, joining the likes of Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Luka Doncic and James Harden. “Literally every time he has the ball, everybody is a threat,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Your entire defense has to be engaged.”

The Nuggets' Nikola Jokic is the January Kia NBA Western Conference Player of the Month.

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last week’s ranking: No. 2

Season stats: 33.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 4.2 apg

Embiid captured Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for the second straight month in January by averaging a league-high 34.9 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.0 spg and 1.6 bpg in 10 outings over the month, all while leading the 76ers to an 11-3 January record. After the Sixers fell to Orlando on Monday, Embiid had his 24th double-double of the season in a 105-94 triumph Wednesday against the Magic to lift Philadelphia to 20-8 at home. The big man was also announced as a 2023 All-Star reserve on Thursday (although we all know he should’ve been a starter).

Sixers center Joel Embiid was named as an All-Star reserve on Thursday night.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Last week’s ranking: No. 4

Season stats: 32.3 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 5.1 apg

Perhaps Antetokounmpo should be higher on this list considering he’s scored at least 50 points in three of his last 11 games after putting up 20 of his game-high 54 points in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s 106-105 comeback win against the LA Clippers. The Bucks erased a 21-point deficit for their sixth win in a row, and Antetokounmpo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are now the only players in franchise history to produce at least three 50-point performances in one season. “Man, I never thought I was going to score 50 in the NBA when I got drafted,” said Antetokounmpo, who is averaging 42.4 ppg and 15.2 rpg over his last five games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 54 points and has 12 rebounds as the Bucks top the Clippers.

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Last week’s ranking: No. 3

Season stats: 31.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 4.4 apg

Tatum and Jaylen Brown became the first teammates in franchise history to knock down seven 3-pointers in the same game in Wednesday’s win against the Brooklyn Nets. “You can tell we were ready to go from the jump,” Tatum said. You think? The 43-point victory marked Boston’s largest margin since besting the Philadelphia 76ers by 48 points last February, and the Celtics led their latest matchup 79-45 at intermission. In 49 games, Tatum has scored 30 points or more in 30 of them, hitting 12 of 19 from the floor against the Nets with nine rebounds while sitting for the majority of the fourth quarter.

Jayson Tatum finishes with 30 points and 11 rebounds vs. the Lakers.

5. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Last week’s ranking: No. 5

Season stats: 33.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 8.2 apg

A tumble on an attempted dunk that was swatted away by Brandon Ingram resulted in a right heel contusion for Doncic during Thursday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans. Doncic left the game in the third quarter, and Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said, “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow.” Remember, Dallas is 0-6 this season without Doncic in the lineup and the club embarks on a five-game road trip Saturday that starts at Golden State. Doncic scored 31 points in 23 minutes Thursday before walking off the floor due to injury. The 23-year-old also suffered a sprained ankle in Phoenix last week fewer than four minutes into the contest, but he returned for Monday’s win over the Detroit Pistons.

Luka Doncic scored 31 points in Thursday's game against New Orleans.

The Next Five:

6. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
7. James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
8. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
9. Julius Randle, New York Knicks (Last week’s ranking: No. 10)
10. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)

And five more (listed alphabetically): Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder; Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets; Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz

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Michael C. Wright is a senior writer for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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