PHILADELPHIA — After Joel Embiid put up 47 points, 18 rebounds and five assists to lead the Philadelphia 76ers back from a 15-point deficit in defeating his rival for the NBA MVP award, Nikola Jokic, and the Denver Nuggets Saturday, he told ESPN he believes this year’s squad is the best and deepest team he’s been on in his seven NBA seasons.
“I think so,” said Embiid, who is averaging a league-leading 33.8 points per game. “You’ve got James Harden, obviously he’s been playing great basketball. You’ve got Tyrese Maxey, Tobias has been great, P.J. Tucker … we’ve got a group that fits with each other.
“We’ll find that out (for sure) in the postseason. But I think as far as the fit, you’ve got everything. Everybody fits with each other, we’ve got shooters, we’ve got defenders, and we’ve got James Harden. So I think we’ve got a good chance.”
Embiid was all smiles after a truly dominant performance — one that came against Jokic, whom Embiid has been a runner-up to in each of the past two seasons for MVP, and two days after Embiid was passed over for a starting spot in next month’s All-Star Game.
After narrowly missing out on being a starter in the East frontcourt, finishing behind Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum due to Tatum finishing third to Embiid’s fourth in the fan portion of the voting, Embiid said it was “a little disrespectful” not to be selected as a starter, after being one each of the past five years.
“I’m used to it,” Embiid said. “It’s not the first time. I think it’s more of a motivation to go out and win the whole thing. That’s the only way I’m probably going to get that respect.”
“I was not surprised,” Embiid continued, when asked what he thought when he saw the voting results come in Thursday night. “I think it’s well documented that I’m not well-liked. That’s cool. I don’t know it’s because I troll a lot or that I guess I’m an a–hole. But it’s cool. I keep being me. I keep being an a–hole, and I keep trolling, and if people don’t like it, that’s their problem. But like I said, it all goes back to winning.”
He and the 76ers (32-16), who have now won an NBA-leading seven straight games, won Saturday afternoon in large part because of Embiid’s dominant performance against his rival, particularly in the second half.
Embiid’s second half line: 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds, three assists, two steals, two blocks and two turnovers, finishing a plus-22.
Jokic’s second half line: eight points on 2-for-5 shooting, as well as four rebounds, four assists and six turnovers — three of which came in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter as Philadelphia pulled ahead and put the game away.
During a 17-4 run midway through the fourth quarter, it was Embiid who scored nine straight points — hitting three jumpers over Jokic before hitting a stepback 3-pointer that forced Denver coach Michael Malone to call timeout — that put Philadelphia ahead for good.
He also has the respect of Jokic, who said Embiid probably is the NBA’s most dominant player.
“He’s really talented,” Embiid said. “Really shifty. Knows how to play and gets the ball where he wants it. He’s a really good player.”
Beyond Embiid’s heroics, part of the reason for the turnaround: the 76ers sticking Tucker on Jokic — a move 76ers coach Doc Rivers said he picked up from watching Tucker guard Jokic while with the Miami Heat last season.
“It just felt like at halftime we weren’t up into (Jokic),” Rivers said of Jokic, who finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. “He was catching it where he wanted to catch it, and he’s such a focal point of their offense that if (Tucker) can get up under him, catch it at the 3-point line, now those handoffs, you can go under, they don’t matter anymore, where in the first half he caught everything at the elbows and low.
“Listen Joel was phenomenal — he had 47 points — but we don’t win the game if P.J. Tucker doesn’t play.”
Naturally, though, the subject of Embiid staring down the possibility of a third straight head-to-head battle with Jokic for the league’s MVP award came up postgame. Embiid has repeatedly praised Jokic extensively, saying he’s a tremendous player and that he has a lot of respect for him.
When given the chance to advocate for himself for MVP — and asked if this was a statement game — Embiid said he’s done doing so.
“I don’t know. That’s up to you guys to decide,” Embiid told ESPN with a smile, referring to the media, who votes for MVP and the other season-ending awards. “Like I told you, I’m done arguing for myself. It’s all out there. Whatever I do.
“But the focus is on winning. As long as we win, I know everything is going to take care of itself. If we keep winning, and everyone stays healthy, I’ve got a better chance of going out there and winning a championship.”
What’s clear is that while Embiid doesn’t know how the MVP vote is going to play out, he feels awfully good about where Philadelphia sits with a little over two months remaining in the regular season. After a slow start, which saw the 76ers lose four of their first five games and sitting at .500 after a double overtime loss in Houston on March 5, Philadelphia has gone 20-4 since then — the NBA’s best record over that span — as well as its best offense, with an offensive rating of 120.1.
For as well as the 76ers as playing, now Embiid wants to see them be more. In particular? He wants to see more consistency from both himself and the group as a whole, pointing to Saturday’s game — which saw Philadelphia give up 73 points in a lackluster first half defensively, before making the second-half comeback to pull out the win — as an example of failing to play a full 48-minute game.
“We show glimpses from time to time,” Embiid told ESPN. “But we haven’t been able to put together a 48-minute game. Like tonight — in the second half, we were locked in. In the fourth quarter, we were locked in. In the first half, we were not. So, we’ve yet to put it together for 48 minutes.
“I want us to get to that point where we can do it in the regular season going into the playoffs.”