A showdown between two of the top Kia MVP candidates is over before it could begin.
The Philadelphia 76ers ruled out star center Joel Embiid with right calf tightness for tonight’s road game against the Denver Nuggets, who won 116-111 after holding off a late rally by the Sixers’ bench. The game would have pit Embiid, who has emerged as a favorite for the Kia MVP award, against reigning two-time Kia MVP winner Nikola Jokic.
Overall, Jokic finished with 25 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists for his 29th triple-double this season.
While insisting Embiid’s absence had no effect on his own approach to the game, Jokic praised his counterpart as a dominant force on both ends of the court.
“The guy’s a beast,” Jokic said. “He can affect the game in so many ways on the floor.”
A historic night for Nikola Jokic in the Nuggets W
🃏: 25 PTS, 17 REB, 12 AST
He joins Wilt and Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to drop 10+ games of 20-15-10 in a season. pic.twitter.com/1j54I0yLTv
— NBA (@NBA) March 28, 2023
The MVP clash wasn’t the race that was on Sixers coach Doc Rivers’ mind.
“It was not a hard decision for us,” he said of holding out Embiid, who complained of discomfort at the team’s morning shootaround after playing both ends of a back-to-back on the road over the weekend.
Rivers said he didn’t know if Embiid’s injury would linger, but noted that calf injuries are notoriously slow to heal and can lead to more serious leg injuries.
“Everybody wants to see these two guys play against each other,” Rivers said, but “we’re just going to take it slow and be smart. We want to get him and the whole team healthy for the playoffs.”
Embiid, the NBA scoring leader, first experienced tightness in his right calf against Chicago last week and Rivers held him out of the second half of that game. Embiid returned to the lineup and scored 46 points at Golden State and 28 in Phoenix, seemingly putting the issue behind him.
Embiid leads the NBA in scoring (33.3 points per game) and had a strong showing against Jokic when the teams played in Philadelphia on Jan. 28, finishing with 47 points and 18 rebounds in a 126-119 win. In his latest performance, Embiid finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals in a 125-105 loss to the Phoenix Suns.
ESPN analyist Kendrick Perkins, a former NBA center who sparked an MVP debate earlier this month by calling Jokic a stat padder, said via Twitter that Embiid owed it to Jokic and basketball fans alike to play in the rematch Monday night.
“Joel Embiid is ducking that smoke today and you all know how I feel about Joel Embiid,” Perkins said. “We know how much it means to him to win this award. And here it is. You gave Jokic a spanking when they were down there in Philly. You have to give him an opportunity to get his lick back.
“You cannot sit out this game,” Perkins added. “I have a vote (for the MVP award) and I’m going to remember this moment.”
Jokic is nearly averaging a triple-double this season (24.9 ppg, 11.8 ppg, 9.9 apg) and is coming off a 31-point, 11-assist showing in a 129-106 win against the Milwaukee Bucks and their Kia MVP candidate, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The Nuggets (51-24) remain No. 1 in the Western Conference standings and have the third-best record in the NBA. The 76ers (49-26) are the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference and trail the Bucks for No. 1 by five games with seven to play.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.