Joel Embiid and the 76ers Notch Thriller Over Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets in MVP Showdown

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You can’t ask for a much more exciting setup than the one we received between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Seven minutes and 28 seconds remaining. A game tied at 111. And the NBA’s last two MVP winners—Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid—both checking into the game after stretches of dominance during the first three quarters.

It was the framework for a finish that would undoubtedly seed the narrative for the next chapter of the rivalry between the two legendary big men. And the final few minutes delivered a definitive winner. Embiid came out on top this time, gaining him back at least a tiny chunk of “Best Center Alive” real estate as the Sixers won 126-121.

Embiid scored 41 points in the 76ers’ win over Jokić and the Nuggets on Tuesday night.

Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Overall, both stars delivered in a thrilling matchup. The first half was all offense. Each side put up 78 points and was firing on all cylinders. And each MVP brought the goods. Embiid headlined with 41 points and a Joker-like 10 assists. Jokić scored 25 but was limited to three assists. He made up for the playmaking with 19 rebounds, including 11 big-boy offensive boards that led to critical second-chance points. (He also finished as a plus-one in the five-point loss.)

As the teams traded body blows for roughly the first 40-and-half minutes, it was Embiid who made the big plays on both ends of the floor down the stretch.

After a Jokić 15-footer with seven minutes and nine seconds to go, the Nuggets were stuck on 113 points for nearly the next four minutes. In that time, the Sixers scored 12 points to take a 10-point lead, with Embiid scoring 10 himself.

Related: NBA Power Rankings: Thunder Buzz Building, Celtics Bounce Back to Take Top Spot

Both coaches for most of the first three quarters largely avoided defending the opposing starting center with their own, likely in an effort to reduce foul trouble and more easily help at the rim. In the fourth quarter, Embiid and Jokić began guarding each other, and Philly more easily took advantage.

Empty pick-and-rolls on the left wing with Embiid and Tyrese Maxey put Denver in a tough position. That action was compromising the Nuggets, who either dropped or got caught in awkward switches that put Embiid in a favorable matchup. With his jumper falling, the Nuggets had no answer for the reigning MVP.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the floor, Embiid’s presence as the drop big did enough to muck up Denver’s normally pristine late-game execution. The Nuggets looked a little cramped, whether it was Jamal Murray running a pick-and-roll with Jokić or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope coming off a handoff. A tired-looking Murray had a turnover and missed a shot in the lane working in tight quarters, especially as the Sixers also ignored Aaron Gordon on the perimeter.

Related: NBA MVP Rankings: Nikola Jokić Takes the Top Spot

With Embiid getting whatever he wanted on the other end, Denver’s rare offensive lull came at the worst possible moment. By the time Jokić hit a long two to end the Nuggets’ drought, Philly was leading by eight. It was an impressive display of defense from the Sixers, who slowed down an offensive machine that famously creates good look after good look in clutch moments. And it started with Embiid, who upped the degree of difficulty for Denver‘s favorite plays.

In some ways, the end of Tuesday’s contest was similar to the one between the Nuggets and Sixers during last season’s game in Philadelphia. Embiid put up monster numbers in that game as Philly pulled away in the fourth quarter. It may be too much of a stretch to say the Sixers have the Nuggets’ number, but those are two impressive wins in the last two matchups between Jokić and Embiid.

Of course, it’s the Joker who still has the trump card on Embiid. Even if the latter wins another MVP this season, it’s Jokić who has the most important hardware: a Finals MVP trophy and a championship ring. Those accomplishments undoubtedly set Embiid back significantly in the never-ending battle betwixt the bigs. Tuesday’s win doesn’t put Embiid in the driver’s seat. But it’s a firm reminder he still serves as a credible threat to Jokić’s dominance. 


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