DENVER — Nikola Jokic had 26 points and 16 rebounds, but was denied his rematch with fellow MVP contender Joel Embiid on Saturday when the Denver Nuggets fended off the short-handed but gritty Philadelphia 76ers 111-105.
Philadelphia’s star center missed the Sixers’ game at Denver for a fourth consecutive season after the team’s medical staff determined he shouldn’t play on his balky left knee.
Jamal Murray added 23 points for Denver and Michael Porter Jr. had 20. Paul Reed led Philadelphia with a career-best 30 points and Kelly Oubre Jr. had 25.
The Sixers scratched Embiid minutes before tipoff after he had discomfort in his troublesome left knee during warmups. It denied basketball fans another marquee matchup between the last two NBA MVPs.
Embiid is averaging 36 points and 11.4 rebounds, and Denver coach Michael Malone said 90 minutes before the game that the Sixers All-Star center has become “really unguardable.”
That is, when he’s not unavailable — which is sometimes the case, especially in Denver, where he hasn’t played since 2019.
Embiid has missed 11 games this season and because of the NBA’s new rules he can only miss six more to remain eligible for the league’s awards. That includes MVP, which he won last year for the first time while denying Jokic a third consecutive such honor.
Embiid was preparing to play without much of his supporting cast Saturday as Tyrese Maxey (sprained left ankle), Tobias Harris (illness) and Mo Bamba (inflamed right knee) were all ruled out two hours before the game.
Counting Embiid, that’s 84 points of scoring averages that the Sixers were missing. But their bevy of backups took an 88-86 lead into the fourth quarter and had it tied up at 96 with 4 1/2 minutes left before Denver took control.
Embiid wasn’t listed on the injury report and he was preparing to play in Denver for the first time since Nov. 8, 2019, before the team’s medical staff grew concerned watching him warm up.
Embiid and Jokic have jockeyed for MVP front-runner status each of the last four seasons, including this one. Each has been runner-up when the other won the award.
In the Sixers’ 126-121 win over the Nuggets on Jan. 16, Embiid had 41 points and 10 assists to Jokic’s 25 points and 19 rebounds.
Embiid was mocked last year with “Missing Person” signs in the stands at Ball Arena after he sat out the Sixers’ game in Denver with a sore right calf, leading to accusations he was ducking Jokic. When the crowd realized he wasn’t on the court or even on the bench Saturday, chants of “Where’s Embiid?” broke out as the Nuggets jumped out to a 13-4 lead.
But the Sixers’ reserves made a game of it, trailing 64-62 at halftime and taking a lead into the final quarter, by which time Embiid had joined his teammates on the bench.
The late nature of Embiid’s scratch certainly played a role in the Nuggets’ languid play, but they were also coming off their longest trip of the season, a 12-day East Coast swing that concluded with a 122-84 loss to the Knicks on Thursday night.
76ers: Visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night.
Nuggets: Host the Bucks in Doc Rivers’ Milwaukee coaching debut. Rivers, who was fired by the Sixers last year following a third straight second-round playoff exit, replaced Adrian Griffin, who was dismissed last week despite a 30-13 record.
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