Embiid finished with 34 points and a scary fall that had the Sixers holding their breath.
Jeff Green clobbered Embiid on a drive to the basket with 3:13 left and the All-Star center landed smack on his tailbone. Embiid immediately grabbed at his back, but walked off the court on his own power as the play was reviewed. Green received a flagrant foul and Embiid went 1 of 2 from the free-throw line to cut Denver’s lead to 107-106.
But Denver rookie Bones Hyland stole the show from both of the All-Star big men, burying his fourth 3 of the fourth quarter for a 110-108 lead that the Nuggets held on to. Hyland scored 21 points total.
Jokic won the MVP last season and Embiid was runner-up, and the franchise stars are again considered the frontrunners this season. Embiid entered the game leading the league in scoring at 29.8 points and Jokic was second at 26.1. He also averages 13.8 rebounds and 8.1 assists.
The Sixers crowd was fired up and — unlike last week when the fans’ vitriol toward Ben Simmons backfired with an embarrassing loss — this was a game to remember.
One big dent in Embiid’s MVP case last season came in games played. Jokic was a deserving winner, and played in 72 games and logged 2,488 minutes to Embiid’s 51 games and 1,585 minutes.
“I think Joel wants to play more. He said that at the end of last year,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “He said, ‘I want to come in in better shape. I feel like I need to play more games to help our team.’ It could be some of that. I’m just happy he’s playing more.”
76ers fans loudly bellowed “MVP! MVP!” and saved their jeers for Jokic.
The Nuggets tried to downplay the matchup.
“I understand the excitement. You have two MVP candidates, and rightfully so,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “But I don’t go to bed at night, saying I can’t wait for Nikola and Joel to go at it. I’m just trying to figure out a way to help our group get back to winning.”
Turns out, he needed Hyland as much as Jokic.
Hyland, from nearby Wilmington, Delaware, buried three straight 3s, the last two for leads of 100-97 and 103-97 with 6:08 left in the game.
Drafted out of VCU, Hyland played in the Rising Stars game during All-Star weekend and has worked his way into the rotation for the Nuggets as they chase playoff seeding. Hyland still has plenty of fans in the area, due in part to the annual streetball tournament he holds in Wilmington.
The 76ers had eked out an overtime win a night earlier at 18-win Orlando, and Embiid looked fatigued down the stretch Monday. He played the final minutes with five fouls and was a helpless bystander as the Sixers outside shooters missed open looks. The worst sequence came when Georges Niang clanged one of the side of the backboard and missed the follow-up with Denver up 113-110.