76ers’ Joel Embiid a late scratch with knee soreness for showdown vs. Nikola Jokić

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Joel Embiid was a late scratch before Saturday’s nationally televised matchup with the Denver Nuggets due to knee soreness, preventing a sold-out crowd at Ball Arena from seeing the Philadelphia 76ers star face Nikola Jokić in a battle of centers who have won the past three MVP awards.

The 76ers had already ruled out starters Tyrese Maxey (ankle), Tobias Harris (illness) and De’Anthony Melton (back), but Embiid was not on the injury report ahead of Saturday’s game. It wasn’t until starters were announced less than half an hour before the game that Embiid was ruled out. Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse said Embiid “did go out to do his regular warmup and the (medical) team just didn’t like what they saw. They just decided it was much safer for him not to play today.”

The news that Embiid would sit out came to the dismay of fans at Ball Arena, who were expecting to see the star center match up with Jokić in Denver for the first time since 2019. The crowd broke out a thundering “Where’s Embiid At?” chant minutes into the game, which the Nuggets led at halftime, 64-62.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone said he expected the league to look into Embiid’s absence given the late timing of the center being scratched.

“I don’t know how you go from being active, to out,” Malone said. “I’m sure the league will do their due diligence. Because that’s frowned upon.”

Malone stressed that he didn’t question Embiid’s injury. His contention was with the timing of the announced decision to make him inactive, minutes before tip-off.

“He hurt his knee in Indiana (on Thursday), so I’m sure he’s hurt,” Malone said.

The 76ers hold a 6-2 edge during games in which Jokić and Embiid both play, but only two of those games have come in Denver. The last meeting between the two players came less than two weeks ago in Philadelphia, when the 76ers held on for a 126-121 victory behind 41 points from Embiid. Jokić had 25 points and 19 rebounds in the losing effort.

Embiid embraced Jokić with a hug after the that game and told Denver’s center, who lifted the Nuggets to their first NBA title in June, that he is “the best player in the world.”

“It’s funny because (on) Twitter, they have a war going on between Philly fans and Denver fans,” Embiid told reporters postgame of the perceived rivalry between he and Jokić. “And it’s funny because both of us are just like, ‘Who cares?’ We just want to play basketball and win some games. But he deserves (the title of best in the NBA). Until you knock him down, that’s the best in the league, and he’s the Finals MVP. So until someone else takes that away, then you can claim that.”

The absence for Embiid on Saturday could have significance as it relates to his pursuit of a second straight MVP award, which he won after Jokić claimed the award in 2021 and 2022. The NBA, under new guidelines instituted this season, requires players to participate in at least 65 games to be eligible for postseason awards. Embiid has missed 11 of Philadelphia’s 44 games, meaning he can only miss six of the remaining 38 and still reach the 65-game threshold.

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(Photo: Dustin Satloff / Getty Images)

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