We expected the cold reception Ben Simmons received Thursday from the crowd at the Wells Fargo Center, but the 129-100 clinic Brooklyn delivered to Philadelphia came as a shocker in what turned out to be a Kia Race to the MVP Ladder matchup.
“He already knew we had his back,” Kevin Durant said of Simmons during his postgame interview with TNT. “It just felt good to quiet all of them down midway through the game. It was very quiet towards the end. We didn’t hear no more Ben Simmons chants from Sixers fans. It was more Nets fans in here than anything.”
Plenty of superstars occupied the building, too, in a pair of former MVPs in Durant and James Harden, MVP frontrunner Joel Embiid and Kia Race to the MVP Ladder mainstay Kyrie Irving. In this highly anticipated matchup between rivals meeting for the first time since the blockbuster deal that sent Simmons to Brooklyn for Harden, Durant scored 18 of his team-high 25 points in the first half against a Sixers squad anchored by Embiid, who finished with 27 points on 5-for-17 from the field (by the way, Philadelphia is 6-10 this season when Embiid shoots worse than 42%).
Harden managed to surpass Reggie Miller for No. 3 all time in 3-pointers made. But the rest of the night fizzled into a dud, as Harden connected on 3-for-17 from the field and tied Embiid with a team-high four turnovers.
“We got our [expletive] kicked,” Harden said. “Since I’ve been here, everything has been sweet, and we’ve been winning games. So, tonight was good for us.”
Durant, meanwhile, provided highlights like this in transition to help Brooklyn pour in 28 points off 20 Philadelphia giveaways. We can’t leave out this nasty Durant crossover for a first quarter dunk. Durant hit a red-hot 5-for-6 in the opening quarter for 11 points, while Irving chipped in another 11 on 4-for-5 from the floor in the opening frame, including this tough midrange jumper.
The fast start ensured Brooklyn would lead wire-to-wire. With 6:09 left to play, the Nets had built a 36-point cushion.
The air left the building way before that, though. By the 5:31 mark of the third quarter, the home crowd was already starting to boo Philadelphia, after former Sixer Seth Curry (24 points) nabbed a steal and converted it with a transition layup.
“We know this team, they’re a fast-paced team,” said Durant, who also finished with a team-high 14 rebounds. “They like to play physical, [and] get to the free-throw line. So, I think we did a good job of not fouling them. Joel [Embiid], it’s hard not to foul him. But overall, I think we did a solid job of keeping him in front on the defensive side of the ball, and we ran them. They’re not a really good transition team. They don’t make second and third efforts. Sometimes we make four or five passes. So, we took advantage of that.”
Durant has probably missed too many games to step back into the MVP discussion. But in high-stakes matchups like this, it’s the superstars such as Durant that typically step to the forefront. If we’re being honest, this was the type of game ripe for Embiid to demonstratively stake his claim for the Kia MVP over leader Nikola Jokic, who finished one assist shy of his third triple-double in four games in Thursday’s loss to Golden State.
That’s not to say Embiid hurt his candidacy, but the deflating loss to the Nets certainly didn’t help, especially with Giannis Antetokounmpo continuing to surge. Thankfully, more tests await both Embiid and Jokic, who face off Monday at the Wells Fargo Center (7:30 ET, ESPN) in yet another Kia Race to the MVP Ladder matchup.
And now, the Top 5 this week in the 2021-22 Kia Race to the MVP Ladder:
1. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Last week’s ranking: No. 1
Season stats: 26.0 ppg, 13.8 rpg, 7.9 apg
The shorthanded and weary Nuggets (five games in seven nights) entered Thursday’s loss to Golden State with five players on the inactive list. The starting lineup included Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green, Austin Rivers and Monte Morris. Jokic and the Nuggets still nearly managed to overcome an 18-point third quarter by Stephen Curry in Thursday’s loss to the Warriors. Denver has won 10 of its last 12 games with Jokic delivering three triple-doubles in his last seven outings, including two in a row in a back-to-back set on Sunday and Monday. Here’s some of the damage Jokic inflicted Wednesday at Sacramento.
T-2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Last week’s ranking: No. 2
Season stats: 29.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 4.3 apg
Embiid didn’t shoot it well with former teammate Andre Drummond defending him on Thursday, but he did finish with another 25-plus point double-double. The majority of the scoring (15 points) came from the free-throw line. Brooklyn outscored Philadelphia 48-26 in the paint on Thursday, as the Sixers shot just 13 of 44 from that area. Philadelphia is 1-3 this season when scoring fewer than 30 points in the paint. Embiid also struggled in a loss on Saturday to the Miami Heat, finishing 4 of 15 from the floor in addition to committing four turnovers.
T-2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week’s ranking: No. 3
Season stats: 29.7 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 6.0 apg
Antetokounmpo responded to a back-to-back set on Tuesday and Wednesday with a total of 82 points on a blistering 68.3% from the field to push Milwaukee’s winning streak to six games. Antetokounmpo is now just 232 points away from passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, and the Bucks are now a full game ahead of Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference standings. “I’ve seen him work every day, but also I’ve seen the growth and the greatness,” teammate Khris Middleton said. “When it’s in front of your eyes every day, you get used to it, but not in a bad way.” Here’s some of Antetokounmpo’s hot first quarter against the Hawks.
4. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Last week’s ranking: No. 5
Season stats: 27.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 6.7 apg
You knew it was only a matter of time before Memphis would finally seize the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies did it behind another strong performance from Morant, who led the team with 24 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists Tuesday in a 132-111 win against the New Orleans Pelicans. Get a load of this heave to beat the shot clock, and we can’t leave out this two-handed dunk on the alley-oop in transition (did the announcer just say Morant’s whole government name here?). Morant has scored at least 20 points in 21 consecutive games, which registers as a franchise record.
5. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
Last week’s ranking: No. 4
Season stats: 28.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.1 apg
Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic are nipping at DeRozan’s heels with the Bulls having lost five of their last six games. But DeRozan showcased his superior closing ability once again Wednesday against Detroit, racking up 16 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter to pull Chicago out of a five-game skid. “He doesn’t have analytics on his side because he uses the mid-range jumper, but he gets to the line,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “We gifted him 13 free throws tonight and he beat us.” DeRozan is the only player in the NBA averaging more than 25 points per game while making fewer than one 3-pointer per game (minimum 50 games).
The Next Five:
6. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last week’s ranking: unranked)
7. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Last week’s ranking: No. 6)
8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Last week’s ranking: No. 8)
9. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 7)
10. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (Last week’s ranking: No. 9)
And five more (listed alphabetically): Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; James Harden, Philadelphia 76ers; Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves.
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