In a battle between the NBA’s top two MVP candidates from the past few seasons, Joel Embiid got the last laugh over Nikola Jokic on Saturday afternoon.
After the game, he downplayed the head-to-head matchup with the two-time reigning MVP—and his All-Star starter snub from Thursday—as having given him extra motivation.
“Not necessarily,” he said. “I’m used to it. It’s not the first time. I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try win the whole thing. I guess that’s the only way I’m probably going to get that respect. I think we’ve got a pretty good chance.”
Embiid got off to an up-and-down start against Jokic and the Nuggets, much like he did against former teammate Ben Simmons and the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. He had 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting and five rebounds in the first quarter alone, but he picked up two fouls—including an offensive foul that Jokic drew—which threatened to limit his aggressiveness.
Head coach Doc Rivers has been conservative at times with foul management this season, often giving Embiid a quick hook when he gets into early foul trouble. But with Jokic cooking Montrezl Harrell like a Christmas ham while Embiid caught a breather midway through the first quarter, Rivers trusted his star big man and got duly rewarded.
In the second half alone, Embiid erupted for 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting, seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, two blocks and two three-pointers, including one that effectively iced the game with 30 seconds remaining. Meanwhile, Rivers’ halftime adjustment of putting P.J. Tucker on Jokic and Embiid on Aaron Gordon defensively paid dividends, as the Nuggets star sputtered with only eight points on 2-of-5 shooting, four rebounds, four assists and six turnovers in the second half.
“You know, I always hear old guys or you guys [the media] talk about, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta live in the paint. I’ve gotta play like Shaq,’” Embiid said afterward, with perhaps a not-so-veiled shot at Hakeem Olajuwon’s recent comments about him. “That’s just not my game. I can do it, but that’s not what I’m good at. I think I’m a good basketball player because I can do everything on the basketball floor.”
Not only did Embiid outduel Jokic—he finished with 47 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks against the team with the best record in the Western Conference—but he also helped guide the Sixers back from a 15-point halftime deficit to pick up a statement win. If anything, Saturday’s game underscored the absurdity of Embiid being left out of the Eastern Conference All-Star starting lineup.
After the game, Embiid said he wasn’t surprised by that decision, though.
“I think it’s what Doc mentioned that I’m not well-liked,” he said. “You know, that’s cool. I don’t know if it’s because I troll a lot, or that I guess I’m an asshole. But it’s cool. I’ll keep being me, I’ll keep being an asshole and I’ll keep trolling. And if people don’t like it, that’s their problem. But like I said, it all goes back to winning.
“All of these whatever, when you look at how many times he was an All-Star, they’re not gonna say ‘He was a starter this many times.’ Which, having been a starter the last five years, it is kind of disrespectful. I don’t think anybody else is having a better year than me. But like I said, if you focus on the right things, then everything is gonna go well for you.”
After seeing Embiid put together one of his most complete games of the season on Saturday, Rivers had another idea.
“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him on the All-Star starters,” he said, perhaps only semi-jokingly.