Joel Embiid may have been motivated by the NBA MVP voting results, the possibility of going down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals or a combination of both. Whatever it was, the 76ers center played with a level of force Tuesday that the Hawks just couldn’t match.
In Philadelphia’s 118-102 win over Atlanta, Embiid scored 40 points (13 of 25 on field goals, 12 of 16 on free throws) and grabbed 13 rebounds, making him the first Sixers player with a 40-10 playoff game since Billy Cunningham in 1970. Through the first two games of the series against the Hawks, Embiid has now racked up 79 points on 54.3 percent shooting, which is incredible considering the All-Star is playing with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
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The 76ers’ victory came on the same night that the NBA announced Nuggets star Nikola Jokic had won the 2020-21 NBA MVP award. Jokic earned 91 of 101 possible first-place votes after playing in every regular-season game and posting averages of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists. Embiid, who averaged 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds in 51 regular-season contests, led all players with 62 second-place votes.
When asked about the voting results after Game 2, Embiid told reporters that he hasn’t been focused on awards throughout the second half of the season and “just wanted to get ready for this moment.”
“It’s disappointing because as a player you work hard for moments like this,” Embiid said. “But then again, it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it. I just gotta come out every year and just be ready and do my job. I’m focused on the playoffs. I’m focused on winning the championship. Like I’ve been saying all season, we’ve got a good chance.
“So I’m not worried about those awards and stuff. If and when I’m holding that trophy, anything else won’t matter.”
That’s the answer you want to hear if you’re a Sixers fan. Obviously, Embiid would have preferred to finish ahead of Jokic, but at only 27 years old, he’s got more MVP-caliber seasons ahead of him. His main focus should be on this playoff run.
Philadelphia is a legitimate title contender as long as Embiid can remain healthy, but there is plenty of work left to do if the 76ers want to come out of the East side of the playoff bracket. The Hawks have already shown they will be a tough out, and if the 76ers are able to advance past them, the Bucks or Nets will present a huge challenge in the Eastern Conference finals.