PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid’s night started with a loss and ended with a win in perhaps his most impressive playoff performance to date.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ 118-102 Game 2 victory over Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday began shortly after the NBA announced Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic won league MVP honors, with Embiid finishing second. Jokic soundly defeated Embiid, with 971 voting points to Embiid’s 586.
That didn’t stop the raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd, itching for a win after the Hawks took the series opener Sunday, from showering Embiid with “MVP! MVP!” chants all night long as he put up a career playoff high 40 points along with 13 rebounds to help the Sixers tie the second-round series at 1-1.
“It’s disappointing because as a player, you work hard for moments like this,” said Embiid, who in April said there was “no doubt” he should win the award. “But then again, it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it. You just got to come out every year and just be ready and do my job.
“But I’m focused on the playoffs, I’m focused on winning the championship. Like I’ve been saying all season, we got a good chance. So I’m not worried about those awards and stuff. If and when I’m holding that [Larry O’Brien] Trophy, anything else won’t matter.”
Jokic was the first center to win the award since 2000 when Shaquille O’Neal earned it for the Los Angeles Lakers. Embiid is trying to be the first player to lead the Sixers to a title since 1983, when another center, Moses Malone, helped Philadelphia sweep the Lakers out of the Finals, coming through on his “Fo’, fo’, fo'” declaration.
And he’s trying to do it without two healthy knees. Embiid was listed as questionable leading up to tipoff, as he’s still recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered in the first round against Washington.
“No excuses,” said Tobias Harris when asked about Embiid’s mindset. “He understands that. This is the playoffs. The way the NBA season was, I don’t think anybody is 100%. So, when he steps on the floor, he has that attitude and that mentality that it’s, ‘win.’
“As a whole group, we all have that tonight, but tonight, you just saw the dominance of him as a player.”
Harris also said Embiid’s defense was instrumental in keeping Trae Young in check in Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll coverages. The Hawks guard finished with 21 points on 6-for-16 shooting, 11 assists and four turnovers after controlling Game 1 with 35 points and 10 dimes.
“I’m trying to do the best I can, limited movement and all. I’m trying to be a better presence around the rim. Obviously not being 100% doesn’t help, but tonight I just wanted to be big,” Embiid said. “It’s tough because if I come up, they throw the lob. If I stay back, it goes with that floater.”
Beyond his 7-foot, 280-pound frame taking up Young’s room to roam, Embiid — known for his clever comebacks — tried to outwit the Hawks’ offense.
“Playing a game, you can call that, of cat and mouse,” he said. “Faking and going back. Just trying to keep them guessing.”
Embiid also had a pretty good hunch of his own before the game when he approached Sixers backup guard Shake Milton, who had just 17 total points in the postseason on 4-for-19 shooting coming into Tuesday.
“For some reason, I felt like he was going to be needed, so I told him before the game to get ready,” Embiid said.
Milton would go on to score 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting — even outscoring Young 14-10 in the second half — to help Philly break it open. He also helped erase the damage done by the Hawks’ bench in the first half when Atlanta’s reserves, led by Kevin Huerter (20 points on 8-for-10 shooting), outscored the Sixers’ subs 32-0.
“I love all these guys,” Embiid said. “[Milton is] one of them and I believe in all of them because I want to win it all, and I’m going to need them to do so. So I’m extremely happy for him.”
Embiid’s coach, Doc Rivers, was happy for the big man, knowing the look of an MVP performance when he sees one.
“It was awesome,” Rivers said. “I remember being on the other side of the night that David Robinson got the MVP and we had to play [Hakeem] Olajuwon. I was on that Spur team.”
Robinson received the trophy at center court before Game 2 of the Western Conference finals back in 1995. Then Olajuwon put up 41 points and 16 rebounds and the Rockets won by 10.
“That didn’t go well for us,” Rivers said. “Tonight, you felt like that was Joel. He was that magnificent.”