PHILADELPHIA — Two of the dominant players of their generation, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have each won MVP awards.
Neither player has won the ultimate prize, an NBA championship.
Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers and Jokic and the Denver Nuggets are on the brink of getting one round closer if their teams can win a pair of Game 6s tonight.
The 76ers look to close out the Boston Celtics at home and advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2001, when their last league MVP — Allen Iverson — carried them on his 6-foot frame. Denver tries to win its series against the Suns in Phoenix.
The odds don’t favor either team. The Celtics are 2-point favorites and the Suns are 3.5-point favorites to each win Game 6, per FanDuel Sportsbook.
Jokic has made the conference finals before, in 2020 when Denver lost to the eventual champion Lakers in five games at the NBA’s restart at Walt Disney World amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Embiid has been bounced from the second round of the playoffs four times his career. Both big men understand what a championship means to their legacy and how the time is now to at least get to the NBA Finals.
Jokic, who had 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists for his 10th career playoff triple-double in Game 5, said the Nuggets must be ready to match Kevin Durant and Phoenix’s desperation in Game 6.
“It’s a must-win for them. We need to have the mentality it’s a must-win for us,” he said. “We don’t want to come here and get to Game 7 and everything that happens. We don’t need to think about it as desperation — we need to think about it as playing aggressive, playing exactly how we played (in Game 5). Because I think we didn’t play desperate today. I think we played really aggressive and really smart.”
Embiid has scored 30 points in three straight games after sitting out Game 1 with a sprained right knee. Embiid flashed his MVP form in Game 5 when he ran down Jaylen Brown and blocked his shot from behind. The block snuffed a late Boston rally and coach Doc Rivers called it the “biggest play of the game.”
Embiid, however, said he wasn’t “very good tonight.” If he starts playing as well as he thinks he can, the Celtics could be in for a long Game 6.
“I think I can be way better,” Embiid said. “As the series goes on, as everything goes on, I’ll hopefully start to feel better and better and better.”
CELTICS AT 76ERS
76ers lead 3-2. Game 6, 7:30 p.m. EDT, Thursday, ESPN.
• NEED TO KNOW: The 76ers are trying to win it all on the 40th anniversary season of their last championship in 1983. The Sixers are 3-1 at home in the playoffs. They are 3-0 this postseason — and 2-0 this series — when reaching the 115-point mark. Philadelphia has won nine straight playoff games when scoring 115 points.
• KEEP AN EYE ON: James Harden. As Harden goes, so go the 76ers. Harden has orchestrated playoff masterpieces, and the 76ers have been at their worst when he has off nights. Against Boston in Games 1 and 4, Harden became only the third player in the last 25 postseasons with multiple go-ahead 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds of a game in a single playoff series.
“We have the MVP on our team, and everybody else is just kind of figuring it out,” Harden said.
• INJURY WATCH: Joe Embiid continues to play with a sprained right knee that might have kept him out of these games during the regular season.
• PRESSURE IS ON: Boston. The defending Eastern Conference champions are facing an elimination game but have confidence in knowing they already won in Philly. Jayson Tatum scored 27 points and Jaylen Brown had 23 in a 114-102 win in Game 3 that spoiled Embiid’s MVP ceremony. The Celtics know if they can force a Game 7, they should have the edge at home even after losing two there already.
NUGGETS AT SUNS
Denver leads 3-2. Game 6, 10 p.m. EDT, Thursday, ESPN.
• NEED TO KNOW: The home team has won every game in this series. If the Suns can keep that going, the series would shift Sunday for a decisive Game 7 in Denver, where the top-seeded Nuggets boast a 40-7 record, including 6-0 in the playoffs. Of the environment in Denver, Suns hot-shooting guard Devin Booker simply said: “They play well at home. They’ve done this all year.” Jokic is having a big series against the Suns, averaging 35 points, 13.8 rebounds and 10 assists.
• KEEP AN EYE ON: Bruce Brown, who came off the bench in Game 5 to score 25 points for the Nuggets. For his elevated play, Brown credited Lakers shooting guard Lonnie Walker IV, who came off the bench to score 15 points — all in the fourth quarter — in a Game 4 win Monday over the Golden State Warriors in the other Western Conference semifinal series. Walker and Brown were college teammates at Miami. “That’s a true professional right there,” Brown said of Walker.
• INJURY WATCH: Suns point guard Chris Paul remains day to day with a strained left groin. “I haven’t really checked on him, if he’s ready to go full tilt yet, but I see him out there shooting and getting ready,” said Booker, who insisted his ankle felt fine after a fall in Game 5.
• PRESSURE IS ON: Booker and Kevin Durant. This is what constitutes an “off” night for Booker these days — 8 of 19 shooting from the floor for 28 points in Game 5. He shot 79% (34 of 43) over both games in Phoenix. Durant had 26 points on 10 of 24 shooting on Tuesday. He also picked up a technical foul for pushing Jokic near the Suns’ bench during a mini-kerfuffle. The talented tandem of Durant and Booker lead the league in minutes played in this postseason, with Durant averaging 42.9 and Booker 42.3. “Every great player in this league is playing around the same amount of minutes as we are. But it’s always a topic with me and him for some reason,” Durant said. “But everybody’s playing 40-plus minutes in the playoffs. You’ve just got to dig deep.”
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