Nuggets 116, 76ers 111
Nikola Jokic recorded his 29th triple double of the season Monday night and the Denver Nuggets beat the short-handed Philadelphia 76ers 116-111, in a game Joel Embiid sat out with a sore right calf.
That scuttled the highly anticipated showdown between MVP front-runners that many felt could have decided whether Embiid, the runner-up the last two years, denies Jokic a third consecutive award.
With Embiid in the locker room, Jokic scored 25 points, pulled down 17 rebounds and dished out 12 assists.
The MVP clash wasn't the race that was on Doc Rivers' mind.
“It was not a hard decision for us," the 76ers coach said of holding out Embiid, who complained of discomfort at the team's morning shootaround after playing both ends of a back-to-back on the road over the weekend.
Rivers said he didn't know if Embiid's injury would linger, but he noted that calf injuries are notoriously slow to heal and can lead to more serious leg injuries.
"Everybody wants to see these two guys play against each other,” Rivers said, but “we’re just going to take it slow and be smart. We want to get him and the whole team healthy for the playoffs.”
Embiid, the league's scoring leader, first experienced tightness in his right calf against Chicago last week and Rivers held him out of the second half of that game. Embiid returned to the lineup and scored 46 points at Golden State on and 28 at Phoenix, seemingly putting the issue behind him.
The Sixers, who also were without James Harden (Achilles) for a fourth consecutive game, matched their season high with their third consecutive loss.
Tyrese Maxey scored 23 of his 29 points in the first half, helping keep the 76ers close. They trailed 61-57 at the half and fell behind by as many as 22 before a late push brought them to 114-111 on Montrezl Harrell's dunk with 29 seconds remaining.
Jeff Green sank two free throws with 13.3 seconds left and Harrell misfired an open 3-pointer in the closing seconds.
Embiid bolstered his MVP credentials in January when he scored 47 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in leading Philadelphia past the Nuggets 126-119.
ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, a former NBA center who sparked an MVP debate earlier this month by calling Jokic a stat padder, said Embiid owed it to Jokic and basketball fans alike to play in the rematch Monday night.
“Joel Embiid is ducking that smoke today and you all know how I feel about Joel Embiid,” Perkins said. "... We know how much it means to him to win this award. And here it is. You gave Jokic a spanking when they were down there in Philly. You have to give him an opportunity to get his lick back.
“You cannot sit out this game,” Perkins added. "I have a vote (for the MVP award) and I'm going to remember this moment.”
Mavericks 127, Pacers 104
Luka Doncic finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists just hours after his most recent technical foul and one-game suspension were rescinded and led Dallas past Indiana.
The Mavericks snapped a four-game losing streak and remained in contention in the race for one of the final two play-in spots in the Western Conference. Kyrie Irving added 16 points and six assists for Dallas.
Indiana was led by Bennedict Mathurin, who scored 22 points, and Andrew Nembhard, who had 17 points, five rebounds and five assists on a night the Pacers were missing three starters and a key backup. The Pacers have lost three straight and six of eight as they move closer to locking up a lottery pick.
Doncic had picked up his 16th technical that was rescinded on Sunday in the team’s second loss to Charlotte. The technical came with 7:51 remaining in the third quarter of a 110-104 loss when Doncic argued a no-call after missing a shot on a drive to the basket. Crew chief Kevin Scott said in a pool report after the game that Doncic used “a profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”
Bucks 126, Pistons 117
Khris Middleton scored 34 points against the team that drafted him and Milwaukee beat Detroit without Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Milwaukee improved to an NBA-best 54-21 despite the absences of Antetokounmpo (knee) and Jae Crowder (calf). Goran Dragic made his Bucks debut after signing with the team on March 4, but didn’t score in nine minutes.
Brook Lopez had 24 points and 14 rebounds, Bobby Portis added 21 points and 14 rebounds, and Jevon Carter scored 22.
The Pistons got 32 points, eight rebounds and eight assists from Jaden Ivey, but lost their sixth straight game and 17th of 18. They are 1-13 against Central Division opponents.
Suns 117, Jazz 103
Devin Booker scored 24 points and Phoenix reserves sparked the decisive run in a win over Utah.
Deandre Ayton had 14 points after missing four games with a bruised hip. But a trio off the bench was pivotal for Phoenix: Terrence Ross had 13 points, Cameron Payne added 12 and Bismack Biyombo scored 11.
The Suns (40-35) had lost four in a row on the road. But with this victory they sit more securely in the fourth spot in the Western Conference playoff race — which would give them home-court advantage in the first round.
Lauri Markkanen scored 25 points for Utah but shot 6 for 22. Walker Kessler had 18 points and eight rebounds for the Jazz (35-40), who have lost four straight. Kessler also matched a career high with seven blocks.
Timberwolves 119, Kings 115
Jaden McDaniels scored 20 points and Minnesota spoiled Sacramento’s bid to clinch a playoff berth for the first time since 2006, the longest playoff drought in NBA history.
The Timberwolves won their fourth straight and completed a sweep of a back-to-back set at Golden State and Sacramento to tie the Warriors for sixth place in the Western Conference playoff race.
Naz Reid scored 18 points, Anthony Edwards had 17 and Rudy Gobert had 16 points and 16 rebounds in the win.
De’Aaron Fox scored 29 points and Domantas Sabonis added 24 points and 10 rebounds for Sacramento, which shot 5 of 26 from 3-point distance.
The Kings will look to clinch a playoff berth when they travel to Portland for two games, starting Wednesday.
Pelicans 124, Trail Blazers 90
Brandon Ingram scored 29 points and New Orleans routed short-handed Portland.
CJ McCollum, who played nine seasons with the Blazers before he was traded to the Pelicans last season, added 17 points. Jonas Valanciunas finished with 10 points and 21 rebounds, and New Orleans led by as many as 36.
Keon Johnson had 20 points off the bench for the Blazers, who have lost nine of 10 and will, in all likelihood, miss the playoffs for the second straight season — although they have not been mathematically eliminated. Most of their regular starters were out with injuries, including top scorer Damian Lillard (right calf), Jerami Grant (bruised left quad), Jusuf Nurkic (right knee) and Anfernee Simons (right foot).
Clippers 124, Bulls 112
Nicolas Batum got all of his season-high 24 points on eight 3-pointers, and Eric Gordon added 22 points as Los Angeles beat Chicago.
Kawhi Leonard scored 22 points as the Clippers rebounded from an embarrassing loss to New Orleans with 20 3-pointers in an impressive outside shooting display led by Batum.
Russell Westbrook had 12 points, 10 assists and five rebounds as Los Angeles (40-36) kept hold of fifth place in the Western Conference standings and moved a half-game behind fourth-place Phoenix.
Zach LaVine scored 23 points and Nikola Vucevic had 20 points and eight rebounds for the Bulls, who followed up their impressive win over the Lakers on Sunday with a dud.