The much-anticipated MVP showdown between Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid was scrapped hours before tip-off on Monday, as Embiid was ruled out due to a sore calf. As a result, the Denver Nuggets led for most of the night, and built a 22-point lead on the Philadelphia 76ers before hanging on for a 116-111 win.
Jokic, unsurprisingly, had his way against the Sixers' weakened front line, and dropped another monster triple-double: 25 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists on 8-of-11 shooting from the field. That was Jokic's 10th game with at least 25 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists, putting him on a list with Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only players to have at least 10 such performances in a single season.
After etching his name in the history books along with some of the all-time greats, Jokic put Embiid in the same category, and had nothing but praise for his MVP rival.
"I think he's a great player," the two-time reigning MVP said of Embiid. "I think he's gonna be remembered as one of the most dominant players in the league. The guy's a beast, and he's so talented.
"He can affect [the game] many ways on the floor. He can post up, he can face up, he can shoot 3s. He can defend really well. He can, in some situations, guard 1 through 5. So he's a really, really good player."
Jokic's comments were notable simply for the fact that he was talking about the player he's going head-to-head with for the biggest honor in the league. With less than two weeks left until the end of the regular season, they are tied in the betting markets as -125 favorites (per Caesars Sportsbook). But they also came in contrast to statements Embiid made in an interview with The Athletic, which was released early on Monday prior to the game.
"The criteria [for MVP] does change," Embiid said. "If we want to talk about the last three years since I've been in the running for it, the first year it was that I didn't play enough games. Last year, I came back, I played enough games, I led the league in scoring, and obviously, Nikola deserved it and he won it.
"But then again, he won as a sixth seed in the West. And then this year, I'm leading the league in scoring, I'm doing all of these things defensively … I should be making an All-Defensive team too. I don't care, but every year it's something. And when you add analytics into it, which don't make sense. You can talk about analytics all you want. When you got some guys in the league, the eye test tells you that they're not good defensively, but analytics tell you they're the best defenders. That's when analytics don't make sense at all. I don't make the rules, I don't choose whatever criteria that they use, so it's really about whatever people's preferences are."
Embiid is almost certainly talking about Jokic there. To be fair, Embiid is correct that he's the better defender between the two, but you usually don't hear a star disparage another star, even mildly.
With both Jokic and Embiid putting up stunning individual statistics, and their teams boasting nearly identical records, there's almost nothing to separate the two stars. Whatever happens, both players' head coaches want the discussion to stay positive down the stretch.
Michael Malone last week lamented the "ugly" and "nasty" nature of the debate, and following Monday's game, Doc Rivers made similar comments.
"The league is in a great place. It's in an amazing place. You've got Joel Embiid and Joker, two centers, in a non-center league, dominating the league," Rivers said. "...You can like them all, and you can actually not like one because you love the other one. But you don't have to hate on anybody. I think we just need to get back to judging whatever your flavor is, and I don't think you have to hate the other one, for sure."