The showdown between MVP front-runners fizzled Monday when Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid was ruled out against the Nuggets and star Nikola Jokic because of a sore right calf.
“He's been complaining about it. Today in shootaround he just didn't like the way he was moving and it was not a hard decision for us,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said before tip-off.
Embiid, who played two games over the weekend, was at the team's shootaround Monday morning but he soon retreated to the sideline. A trainer wrapped a large ice pack on his right leg and the 76ers decided to hold him out at Denver, their third game in four nights.
Rivers held Embiid out of the second half against Chicago last week when the center first complained about a tight right calf. But Embiid played in back-to-back games on the 76ers’ Western trip over the weekend, scoring 46 points in a 120-112 loss at Golden State Friday night and 28 points in a 125-105 loss at Phoenix 24 hours later.
“They came to me at halftime” against the Bulls and “I said this is not a debate. He doesn't play anymore tonight," Rivers recounted. "And he felt great the last two games. So, yeah, we're just going to take it slow and be smart. We want to get him and the whole team healthy for the playoffs.”
Asked if he wishes he'd have held Embiid out of one of those games so he could have squared off against Jokic, Rivers said, "Not really. That means he would have still felt it at some point. So, I think you wish that — and everyone else — because everybody wants to see these two guys play against each other.
“So, no is the answer. He was healthy and when you're healthy you play and when you're not, you don't.”
Rivers said he wasn't sure if Embiid would miss any more games, but reiterated his philosophy about being extra cautious with the first sign of a strained calf.
Nuggets coach Michael Malone had a simple response when asked if he wished Embiid suited up to see how his team measures up against one of the league's top teams heading into the playoffs.
“No,” Malone said. “Whether Joel Embiid plays or doesn't play has nothing to do with our approach. There's eight games to go and it's about us finding some consistency, especially on the defensive end.”
Embiid, who has finished second to Jokic in Most Valuable Player voting each of the last two seasons, has made a late push to dethrone Jokic, although this marks the 14th game he's missed this season.
Embiid leads the NBA with a 33.3-point scoring average to go along with an 10.2 rebounding average. The 76ers (49-25) trail Milwaukee and Boston in the Eastern Conference.
Jokic is nearly averaging a triple-double with 24.9 points, 11.8 rebounds and 9.9 assists per game. The Nuggets (50-24) sit atop the Western Conference, three games ahead of surging Memphis entering Monday night's action.
Several sportsbooks responded to Embiid's dominant post-All-Star Game stretch by bumping him ahead of Jokic as the slight MVP favorite.
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.
James Harden, the league leader in assists (10.8) also participated in the 76ers' shootaround and is expected to return from a sore Achilles against the Nuggets.