Joel Embiid states MVP case: Sixers star shines in return from calf injury

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid reacts during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid was back in the starting five on Wednesday, two days after taking what some believed to be a message-sending seat on the bench. The Sixers’ 7-footer wasted no time in making his presence known by winning the opening tip, then scoring the team’s first seven points while hearing boisterous MVP chants every time he stepped to the free-throw line.

Embiid finished with 25 points and nine rebounds during a sometimes lackluster 116-108 victory over Dallas. Let’s not look a gift win in the mouth, though. The Sixers were coming off a brutal road trip – seven games, zig-zagging the country in 14 days – and just returned home, literally at around 6 a.m. on Tuesday. So, pardon them for being a bit tired as they took their home floor to host the Mavericks.

Predictably, Embiid received a hero’s welcome from Sixers fans during introductions at Wells Fargo Center. He exploded out of the gates for 10 points in a brisk first quarter before giving way to Paul Reed. Statement start? Maybe. His critics have been sniffing around for a sordid storyline after Embiid was scratched from Monday’s game (March 27) in Denver. The official reason for his absence was a calf injury, but the timing raised eyebrows since it would have pitted him against Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP who beat out Embiid for the award in each of the last two seasons.

Embiid, who came in averaging 34.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in March, has not lobbied for the MVP award this season as he did in previous years. He attempted to change the narrative by referring to himself as the “bad guy” in an interview with The Athletic, adding that “I like being the a–hole anyway.”

Doc Rivers explains his process, resting the Sixers’ top playmakers

Prior to the Sixers’ tip-off against the Mavericks on Wednesday (March 29), Embiid was listed as a game-time decision as reporters peppered Doc Rivers about the health of his star center. He stuck to the script, saying the team was waiting to see how his injured calf responded during warmups, then maybe inadvertently spilled the beans.

The Sixers have a “mapped out” plan on how they want to use Embiid – and James Harden, for that matter – down the stretch. Rivers wants his All-Star playmakers healthy for the postseason. Hence why the Sixers decided to rest Embiid against Denver; they also sat Harden for three straight games as he battled Achilles tendon soreness.

“We have it all mapped out, but unfortunately, things happen,” Rivers said 90 minutes before taking on Dallas. “He sustained an injury, but if no injury had occurred, all of them would have played the entire trip.”

One more thing: Rivers doesn’t believe that Embiid missing a day or two here and there should impact his MVP chances. If Jokic plays more games, then so be it. It shouldn’t come down to that.

Doc Rivers, Philadelphia 76ers (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

“I don’t think it’s fair. You’re not judged for one game, that I know of; you’re judged for the entire season, your entire body of work, your team’s record, and how you perform, and he’s been dominant all year… Will it hurt him? It could, but I doubt it, but I don’t know what people use as the criteria. It seems like it changes weekly what the real criteria is. Before, it was a bunch of numbers, and now it’s wins. But it was like we didn’t want wins last year, you know what I’m saying? So, it feels like every year, it just keeps changing.”

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers