At the 7:28 mark of the fourth quarter, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic checked back into a tie game, 111-111. After Jokic and Tyrese Maxey exchanged buckets, it was time.
Time for Embiid to show why he’s the best player on the planet.
With the game tied 113-113, veteran guard Reggie Jackson ran a pick-and-roll with Jokic. As Jackson drove to the rim, he was met by Embiid and threw up a wild layup attempt. That play sparked a fast break — and guess who was rewarded for his defense and running back in transition? Embiid, who made a gorgeous Euro step move on Jokic.
After a Nuggets timeout, the ball was in Embiid’s hands in familiar territory above the left elbow. With Aaron Gordon draped all over him — and plenty of help at the rim — Embiid did his pump fake dance, rose up, nailed the jumper and caught Gordon’s hand in the cookie jar.
Then, fines be damned, Embiid did his infamous DX chop to the delight of the raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd.
From there, Embiid hit a three in Jokic’s eye and then buried another jumper over Gordon.
And just like that, Embiid went on a personal 10-0 run to give the Sixers their biggest lead of the night and helped seal a 126-121 win over the defending champion Denver Nuggets Tuesday night.
“Obviously he takes the matchup seriously,” Tobias Harris said, “but I think he’ll tell you he wants to win more than anything — based upon the fact that they won a championship last year. I think that speaks to who he is as a player and as a competitor as well.”
With so much hype surrounding the Embiid vs. Jokic matchup, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture — especially when Embiid drops 41 points and dishes out 10 assists. The Sixers are a good team that’s trying to find out how good it can be.
The triumvirate of Embiid, Harris (24 points) and Tyrese Maxey (25 points, nine assists) led the way, while players like Nicolas Batum, Patrick Beverley and Kelly Oubre, Jr. continue to look like gigantic additions. And Nick Nurse’s schematic ingenuity was once again on full display while throwing the kitchen sink at Jokic.
But make no mistake — the Sixers will go as far as Embiid will take them. He knows it. The Sixers know it. We all know it.
“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to win,” Embiid said. “No matter what’s around you, no matter who’s around, you’ve got to find a way to win. So that’s my best. I said it the beginning of the season: You can talk 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. Got to stay healthy and be at our best.”
And as we’re all painfully aware, Embiid has never truly been healthy for a playoff run. Until he is, no matter how dominant he is in matchups like this, the questions will arise.
Still, for one night, the formula was there for the Sixers against one of the best teams in the league. The biggest part of that formula is Embiid playing the way he did — aggressive and decisive, yet methodical and patient.
For most of the night, Embiid was comfortable finding his teammates and allowing them to punish Denver for the attention it was paying him. He finished the night with 10 assists and three turnovers (a solid number for a player who leads the league in usage rate).
This all goes back to the first time Embiid and Nurse met while the former Raptors head coach was still interviewing for the Sixers job. After spending so much time — and likely many sleepless nights — conjuring up ways to slow down Embiid, Nurse was now in the unique position to empower him. How he’s done so is simple: movement of both ball and player.
That’s how Embiid has not only maintained but exceeded his gaudy scoring numbers while averaging 6.1 assists, a number that would crush his previous career high of 4.2. Nurse’s scheme, Embiid’s growth, and a smart and talented supporting cast are allowing the big man’s all-around game to shine.
Too often in the past, the offense would basically be four guys standing around waiting for Embiid to do something great. While that can still happen from time to time — because Embiid is still freaking great — Nurse was pleased with what he saw Tuesday.
“I would say tonight I’m pretty happy offensively, because I thought our guys didn’t stand and look at him,” Nurse said. “There were four guys in motion as soon as he got the ball. … You’ve got to do something, not just let that thing shrink, shrink, shrink on him and let (the defense) pick out the double they want. We spend quite a bit of time on it, and he’s adjusting and reading it as well.”
One of the strangest things is that the Embiid-Jokic “rivalry” is 100% fan-driven. The all-world big men have a genuine appreciation for one another. They respect each other and simply enjoy competing against a fellow virtuoso.
“Yes, of course, he’s a really good player,” Jokic said. “I mean, he’s historic right now. Averaging 30-something points every night. And that’s extremely hard to do every night. But I’m not playing against him. I’m playing against Philadelphia. It was a good matchup.”
Embiid echoed that sentiment in a slightly more elaborative fashion.
“I’m extremely competitive, if anybody didn’t know,” Embiid said. “So if you’re telling me this is the two-time MVP and this guy is better than me, of course I’m going to go out and try to see for myself. Are people right? It doesn’t matter who it is. It can be Giannis, it can be Steph, it can be KD, it can be Anthony Davis — all those guys. I just want to see for myself: Are they really better than me? And what can I do to be better than them?
“But what gets lost in it is always the concept of team basketball. It doesn’t matter what you do, unless you win the game.”
And the Sixers won Tuesday in no small part because of Embiid’s two-way brilliance.
The debates will rage on.
Who is the best big man in the game? Who is the best player in the world?
Jokic has two MVPs while Embiid has one. What Embiid really wants is the award Jokic won last year: the Larry O’Brien trophy (and he surely wouldn’t mind taking home Finals MVP too).
But as far as who former players on TV or pundits around the world or weirdos on Twitter want to crown as the best in the NBA, that is no longer Embiid’s concern.
“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 it’s not about just the individual. You’ve got to win as a team, so you’ve got to do the best job possible to make sure that you put yourself and your team in the best position … to win.”
If the basketball gods allow a healthy Joel Embiid playoff run, everyone wins.