DENVER | Nikola Jokic recorded his 29th triple double of the season Monday night and the Denver Nuggets beat the short-handed Philadelphia 76ers 116-111, in a game Joel Embiid sat out with a sore right calf.
That scuttled the highly anticipated showdown between MVP front-runners that many felt could have decided whether Embiid, the runner-up the last two years, denies Jokic a third consecutive award.
With Embiid in the locker room, Jokic scored 25 points, pulled down 17 rebounds and dished out 12 assists.
The MVP clash wasn’t the race that was on Doc Rivers’ mind.
“It was not a hard decision for us,” the 76ers coach said of holding out Embiid, who complained of discomfort at the team’s morning shootaround after playing both ends of a back-to-back on the road over the weekend.
Rivers said he didn’t know if Embiid’s injury would linger, but he noted that calf injuries are notoriously slow to heal and can lead to more serious leg injuries.
“Everybody wants to see these two guys play against each other,” Rivers said, but “we’re just going to take it slow and be smart. We want to get him and the whole team healthy for the playoffs.”
Embiid, the league’s scoring leader, first experienced tightness in his right calf against Chicago last week and Rivers held him out of the second half of that game. Embiid returned to the lineup and scored 46 points at Golden State on and 28 at Phoenix, seemingly putting the issue behind him.
The Sixers, who also were without James Harden (Achilles) for a fourth consecutive game, matched their season high with their third consecutive loss.
Tyrese Maxey scored 23 of his 29 points in the first half, helping keep the 76ers close. They trailed 61-57 at the half and fell behind by as many as 22 before a late push brought them to 114-111 on Montrezl Harrell’s dunk with 29 seconds remaining.
Jeff Green sank two free throws with 13.3 seconds left and Harrell misfired an open 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
Embiid bolstered his MVP credentials in January when he scored 47 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in leading Philadelphia past the Nuggets 126-119.
ESPN analyist Kendrick Perkins, a former NBA center who sparked an MVP debate earlier this month by calling Jokic a stat padder, said Embiid owed it to Jokic and basketball fans alike to play in the rematch Monday night.
“Joel Embiid is ducking that smoke today and you all know how I feel about Joel Embiid,” Perkins said. “… We know how much it means to him to win this award. And here it is. You gave Jokic a spanking when they were down there in Philly. You have to give him an opportunity to get his lick back.
“You cannot sit out this game,” Perkins added. “I have a vote (for the MVP award) and I’m going to remember this moment.”
76ers: Philadelphia has lost four of five for the first time all season. … Embiid has missed 14 games this season. He hasn’t played in Denver since November of 2019.
Nuggets: Several stars have missed games at Ball Arena this season, although Giannis Antetokounmpo, another MVP contender, played in Milwaukee’s 129-106 loss at Denver on Saturday, matching Jokic’s 31 points. … Jokic has five triple-doubles this month and 111 for his career, including the playoffs.
76ers: Host the Dallas Mavericks Wednesday night.
Nuggets: Host the New Orleans Pelicans Thursday night.