Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic faced off in Philadelphia on Tuesday in what is becoming the MVP race’s annual midseason check-in. A little less than a year ago, on Jan. 28, 2023, Embiid engineered a 15-point, second-half comeback against Jokic’s Nuggets in a win that ultimately saw his MVP odds nearly cut in half from +700 to +360. He wound up winning the award, but just as was the case last season, Jokic is the slight favorite at most books as of this writing. If Embiid wanted to reclaim his place atop the leaderboard, he made quite a statement against Denver in a 126-121 win Tuesday.
Jokic was spectacular, posting 25 points and 19 rebounds in defeat, but Embiid stole the show with a 41-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound masterclass. He saved his best work for the fourth quarter. When he re-entered the game with 7:28 remaining in the fourth quarter, the score was tied at 111 apiece. Jokic and Tyrese Maxey traded buckets to push the score to 113 each, but Embiid took over from there. Between the 6:57 and 3:32 mark of the fourth quarter, 10 total points were scored. All of them came from Embiid. His personal 10-0 run gave the 76ers a 123-113 lead that they would never relinquish.
It would be one of the best performances of the season in a normal year, but it was downright pedestrian by the standard Embiid has set this season. It was Embiid’s eighth 40-point game of the season, and it was the first time since Nov. 17 that he failed to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound mark. Of course, he made up for that with his 10 assists, because even when he is slightly deficient in a single area this season, Embiid has found ways to compensate elsewhere. He is having the best season of his career, and yet, after the game, he deferred to the player he just defeated. Jokic and Embiid shared a hug after the game, and Embiid whispered something in Jokic’s ears that the camera didn’t quite catch. In his postgame interview, Embiid explained that he told Jokic he was the best player in the league.
“I just told him he’s the best player in the league.” 👀
Joel Embiid tells @ALaForce what he told Nikola Jokić after their hard-fought battle tonight! pic.twitter.com/mcDsfyUzCA
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 17, 2024
“I just told him he’s the best player in the league,” Embiid said. “Like I told you earlier, he won a championship, that’s the best team in the league. He’s the Finals MVP. So I was just telling him, ‘Keep going, I’ll see you in two weeks, keep doing your thing, that’s why you’re the best in the league.'”
The 76ers are scheduled to play the Nuggets again in Denver on Saturday, Jan. 27, so Jokic could potentially have a chance to prove Embiid’s words, but the Philadelphia star’s recent history suggests he might not be a lock to play in that game. Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in the MVP race three years in a row, but Embiid hasn’t played a single road game in Denver during that stretch. There was some fear that he would miss Tuesday night’s game, the second half of a back-to-back for the 76ers, but he wound up playing. He has missed seven of Philadelphia’s last 11 games, and the 76ers will be cautious in managing his health in the hopes that he gets to the playoffs at full strength.
Jokic was ranked No. 1 in the NBA in most preseason player rankings. He was the pick from CBS Sports, The Ringer and Bleacher Report, for example, and before Embiid’s 2023 MVP win, Jokic had taken home the two previous trophies. This year’s race will be a bit deeper. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo all have odds in the triple digits to this point and will be heard from. But ultimately, Embiid is correct. The title of “best player in the league” is determined in the playoffs, not the regular season. Embiid may have taken a step toward winning his second MVP award on Tuesday, but if he wants to take Jokic’s far more meaningful “best in the world” title, he’s going to have to do it in June, not January.