December 10, 2019.
That was the last time Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid competed against one another, until Monday night that is. Even on a night where Denver Nuggets rookie Bones Hyland stole the show with a 21-point outburst that lead the Nuggets to a 114-110 victory in a game they once trailed by 19-points, the battle between Jokic vs. Embiid still reigned supreme.
The “Bones Show” did not completely overshadow the matchup we all wanted to see as Jokic and Embiid put on a show. It all started in the first quarter as Embiid had the early advantage over Jokic with a strong first quarter. Embiid had 12 points following the first quarter, while Jokic struggled to get going committing three turnovers in the opening period.
That quickly began to change in the second quarter as Jokic started to take the game over and even got Embiid to commit his third foul right before halftime. Jokic baited Embiid into this shot fake and the Nuggets big man got an and-1 opportunity out of the play:
Denver went on an 8-0 run following that bucket as Embiid was forced to sit the remainder of the first half. The Nuggets only trailed by five at the break and they ultimately won the second half 61-52 to pull off an incredible comeback victory on the road.
Jokic did a lot of his damage in the second half, but Embiid was able to answer the bell as well. Embiid finished the game with a better stat line than Jokic scoring 34 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field, 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. Not only did he score the ball, but Embiid also hauled in nine rebounds and dished out four assists.
Even though his stat line might look a little better on paper, Jokic had a pretty solid night as well finishing just shy of a triple-double with 22 points, 13 rebounds, and eight assists. Jokic had a number of unbelievable passes, but none was more special than this dime to Jeff Green during the closing seconds of the first half:
Now to the question we’ve all been waiting for: where does the MVP race stand following Monday night’s matchup between Jokic and Embiid? Well, not to entirely cop out here, but I don't think it changed very much. Sure, Embiid might have had a better night “statistically,” but Jokic’s team picked up the victory and he was a big reason why. Was the bench the biggest margin for Denver’s victory? Yes. Did Embiid spent several minutes against the Nuggets bench and fail to extend the lead? Also yes.
Embiid had a pretty good night individually, but one thing that can't go unnoticed was Jokic’s defensive performance. The argument has always been that Embiid is a much better defender than Jokic, but that gap is inching closer and closer as the Nuggets big man had another phenomenal night defensively against the 76ers.
What Embiid does incredibly well is draw fouls and get to the free-throw line, which is something Jokic did not let happen when he guarded him. Jokic committed just one foul all game and even had two blocks, including this one against Embiid to start the game:
Already denying buckets 30 seconds in. pic.twitter.com/zk7KluPrG9— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) March 14, 2022
If anyone does have an edge in the MVP race following Monday night’s game, it feels like it’s Jokic based off the fact Denver now has as many wins as Philadelphia at 41 on the season. For a team that is missing their second and third best players — Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — Jokic continues to get the job done and help Denver find ways to win.
The Nuggets have 13 games remaining, while the 76ers have 15 games left to decide who is bringing home the MVP award this season. It feels like a two horse race between Jokic and Embiid with just under a month to play in the NBA’s regular season with Giannis Antetokounmpo in third place. If the Nuggets are able to secure a top-4 seed in the Western Conference it feels like a lock for Jokic to bring home his second consecutive MVP.
For all the injuries Denver has been forced to deal with this season, one constant has stayed the same: Jokic’s play night in and night out. The Nuggets big man doesn't always get the help he should, or that other superstars have received this year, but he always finds a way to make it work and Denver’s record is indicative of that.
Sure, Embiid is putting together an incredible season, especially for a center, but what Jokic has been able to do with this Nuggets roster is nothing short of spectacular. Jokic has not only played great this season, but the greatness he shares with his teammates has also made this Nuggets team better because of it. You see it with players like Monte Morris, Aaron Gordon, Will Barton, and even Bones Hyland in the confidence they all play with alongside Jokic.
One thing is for certain and it’s that if the Nuggets keep winning games and Jokic keeps playing the way he’s playing, it will be tough to not give him the MVP award. Monday night’s game was a fair battle between Jokic and Embiid, but with the 76ers big man unable to create any separation from Jokic it feels like the leagues reigning MVP holds a slight advantage moving forward.