NUGGETS

Embiid’s 5 ways to avoid Denver: dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge

Jan 27, 2024, 7:54 PM | Updated: 8:05 pm

DENVER—”I’ll see you in two weeks,” a truthful Joel Embiid said to Nikola Jokic as the Philly big called the Denver one the best player in the world after a tight 76ers win on their home floor against the Nuggets.

Two weeks later, Embiid showed up at Ball Arena with five minutes left to play in the fourth quarter, with his team trailing 96-92. Was the NBA’s reigning MVP playing? No, of course not. He was just making his league-obligated stroll to the bench to a chorus of boos while he answered the crowd’s biggest question of the night; oh, so that’s where Embiid’s at.

Embiid missed the 76ers annual game in Denver for a fourth-straight season on Saturday, despite being available and active on the injury report leading into the game. Philly’s staff said Embiid had a sore knee they were worried about, which conceded the medical team while he was warming up. And while everyone admits on both sides that the league’s best scorer did bang up his knee last game, the Nuggets were quick to question why he wouldn’t be on the injury report even if the intent was to play.

“We found out very late. I don’t know how you go from being active, available, to out. I’m sure the league will do their due diligence because that’s frowned upon,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “We’ve had situations this year when a player goes from active to out and the league does an investigation. I’m sure that will happen, and I’m sure Joel is hurt, he hurt his knee in the Indiana game. It’s tough when we prepare for a team and player, and they’re out. When Jamal (Murray) made three threes at the start, I think everyone thought this would be a cakewalk.”

Denver did get off to a hot start despite everyone’s eyes being on Philly’s bench. But the 76ers reeled it back in quickly and made a game out of the ABC broadcast. Still, the Nuggets admitted it was hard to know just what strategy to deploy given the massive adjustments needed for not playing against the league’s reigning most valuable player.

“I went out to the bench with two minutes left, and I was grabbing guys saying, ‘no letdowns,'” Malone said. “Aaron Gordon was like ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Embiid’s not playing.’ Our players didn’t know and they were on the court warming up. You prepare for one thing and it’s just human nature at this point.”

Philly’s new head coach Nick Nurse was disappointed for fans and said Embiid really did want to play. Nurse didn’t see an issue with Embiid missing Denver again in particular; the coach was just concerned over his star player’s nagging knee.

“I feel there was a letdown when we found out at the tip-off that Joel Embiid was out tonight, and when you do that you can make for an interesting game,” Malone said. “It was a big letdown for the national audience to not get Nikola-Embiid but the two positives were we won and nobody got hurt.”

Unlike last year, Embiid didn’t hide in the hallways. Thanks to a new rule in the latest CBA that specifies players who are sitting out must be on the bench, fans did get to see Embid. They booed him, and the big man egged the crowd on as the 76ers fell short 111-105 down the stretch. And thanks to that same updated CBA, Embiid has to clear 65 games played to even qualify for postseason awards. He’ll need to play 32 of the 76ers last 38 games. Embiid’s dodge of Denver is now written in stone as something that does indeed happen, but his ducks don’t stop there; he’s only played in 12 road games this season—three of which were against teams above .500.

The thing is, the smart basketball fans in Denver want to see one of the league’s best players—just as they come out for LeBron James or Steph Curry. And the Mile High City’s lasting memory of Embiid actually playing in Denver is a Jokic game-winner to cap a 21-point fourth-quarter comeback.

So we’ll play the game again of sweeping this contest under the rug and forgetting about it come voting time—just as the national folks are starting to with Jokic’s incredible run last postseason.

But Nikola will keep ticking. Scoring 26, grabbing 16 and throwing seven helpers on Saturday and saying afterward that the world needs to credit Paul Reed for how well he played instead of focusing on Embiid’s no-show.

“We need to respect what Joel’s doing,” Jokic said. “He’s putting history in front of our eyes and he makes it look easy.”

The people in Denver just haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Embiid’s greatness in front of their eyes. And Denverites will be rightfully upset about not seeing two of the best big men ever square up in their primes, duking it out for the league’s best player honor.

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