Joel Embiid scores 41, outduels Nikola Jokic as Sixers top Nuggets

PHILADELPHIA — Before Tuesday night’s showdown between the Philadelphia 76ers and the defending champion Denver Nuggets, 76ers coach Nick Nurse was asked about the head-to-head battle between the top two finishers in the past three MVP races: 76ers center Joel Embiid and Nuggets counterpart Nikola Jokic.

“The card tonight is more than just the big heavyweight matchup,” Nurse said with a smile. “There’s a little bit more going on.”

That might have been true. But the two superstar big men more than lived up to their billing atop the marquee.

And it was Embiid who ultimately landed the knockout blow.

Embiid finished with 41 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists, while Jokic had 24 points, 19 rebounds — including 11 offensive boards — and 3 assists. But it was Embiid’s 10 consecutive points in the fourth quarter that proved to be the difference in a 126-121 victory.

“I think we finally got some stops defensively,” Embiid said afterward. “We knew that, especially at halftime, after both teams gave up 78 points each, we just knew that the first team to get some stops were going to have a good chance of winning the game, and we were that team.”

Before his 41-point, 10-rebound performance Monday against the Houston Rockets, Embiid had missed three games in a row because knee soreness and seven of Philadelphia’s past nine games because of the sore knee and a sprained ankle. But he wasn’t even listed on the injury report Tuesday against Denver.

Embiid’s streak of having at least 30 points and 10 rebounds ended at 16 games, tying him with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the longest by anyone not named Wilt Chamberlain in NBA history, but that didn’t diminish his dominance in this one — particularly in the closing minutes.

Down five to start the fourth quarter, the 76ers (26-13) managed to tie the score when Embiid and Jokic checked back into the game with 7:28 to go. Then, after Jokic and Tyrese Maxey traded baskets, Embiid staked Philadelphia to a lead it wouldn’t relinquish by scoring 10 straight points — Euro-stepping around Jokic for a layup, getting an and-1 jumper, hitting a 3-pointer and burying another jumper.

“This was a game that went down to the wire,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We came up short. Joel [Embiid] is a hell of a talent.”

It was a fitting conclusion to a wildly entertaining game, one that saw both teams score 78 points in the first half in a game in which defense was, for large portions, seemingly optional. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the combined 156 first-half points were the most in a tie game in the shot clock era (since 1954).

But, more than anything, the head-to-head matchup of two of the league’s best players more than lived up to the hype. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Embiid became the first opposing center this season to have more points and assists than Jokic in a game. The only other one to do it in the past two seasons is Houston Rockets big man Alperen Sengun on April 4, 2023.

“Those are probably the two best players of our generation,” Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. said.

Despite their three consecutive battles for league MVP, Embiid and Jokic have consistently held each other in high regard. That was no different after Tuesday’s game, with Jokic speaking highly of Embiid’s play this season and Embiid saying Jokic deserves to be considered the best player after winning NBA Finals MVP last season.

“He’s a really good player,” Jokic said. “He’s playing historic right now. He’s averaging 30-something points every night, and that’s extremely hard to do, especially every night.

“But I mean, I’m not playing against him. I’m playing against Philadelphia. It was a good matchup.”

Said Embiid: “Both of us, we are just like, ‘OK, we just want to play basketball and win some games,’ He deserves [the title of best player] until you knock him [off]. He’s the Finals MVP. Until someone else takes that away, then you can claim that.”

Then, Embiid smiled.

“But then again, I also believe in myself,” he said. “I’ll keep it at that. I just got to get there.”

This was the kind of performance that gave the 76ers belief that they can compete with the league’s elite teams. The 76ers are 23-6 when Embiid is in uniform this season, and now they have wins over both Boston and Denver on their résumé.

Embiid, who was in first place in last month’s first edition of ESPN’s MVP straw poll, is in pole position to claim the league’s top individual honor for a second straight season. But he knows that he is going to be judged on whether the 76ers can finally break through in the playoffs and advance past the second round.

“I don’t think I care what people decide who’s the best,” Embiid said. “I know I want to be the best, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to be the best. But sometimes you got to be able to win as a team. You got to do the best job possible to make sure that you put yourself and the team in the best position possible to win. And it seems like if you want to be the best, you got to win … you got to find a way to win. So, that’s my goal.

“I said it at the beginning of the season. Y’all keep talking about Boston, Milwaukee. That’s fine. They might be better than us, they might be more talented than us, but I still believe we’ve got a chance. We just need a little bit of luck.

“Like I always say, we got to be perfect. We got to be in sync together. We got to play with each other. And it’s been working pretty well this year.”

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