PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embid returned from a hotly debated one-game absence because of injury and got the 76ers to 50 wins in the fewest amount of games since 2001. Maybe like Allen Iverson and the ‘01 Sixers, perhaps Embiid's next step is an MVP and a trip to the NBA Finals.
And if that MVP doesn't come?
“I don't care,” Embiid said. “It's all about the playoffs.”
Embiid had 25 points and nine rebounds, James Harden added 15 points and 12 assists and Philadelphia beat the Dallas Mavericks 116-108 on Wednesday night.
Embiid flashed his MVP credentials as he plays with a calf injury and powered the Sixers back in the fourth against Luka Doncic and got them to 50 wins in 76 games. Embiid hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 103 and followed with a 16-footer the next time down for what ended up the winning basket and keep the 76ers as the No. 3 seed in the East.
Doncic had 24 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Kyrie Irving scored 23 points for the Mavericks, who did not score the final 3:18 of the game.
The Mavericks fell to 37-40 and are in danger of missing the playoffs in the West.
“We just can't be a championship game overnight,” Irving said. “I've wrapped my head around it. I'm at peace with it.”
Tyrese Maxey added 22 points to help the 76ers snap a three-game losing streak. They returned from a 1-3 trip with both Embiid and Harden healthy. Harden (Achilles) missed the last four games.
“They looked good. not great,” coach Doc Rivers said of his returning stars.
Embiid sat out against against Denver and fellow MVP candidate Nikola Jokic because of a balky right calf. Embiid played in both games of a back-to-back set against Golden State and Phoenix. After a day off, Embiid couldn’t go in the anticipated showdown of MVP frontrunners, leaving the team and the All-Star center open for criticism.
“If one game is going to hurt anybody's chances, then I guess everybody should be out of it,” Embiid said. “We all have bad games, guys miss matchups, that's not the first time.”
Rivers said the issue wasn’t as simple as just resting Embiid a game in the back-to-back. The plan was always to play Embiid on the entire trip but the NBA’s reigning scoring champion simply couldn’t go against the Nuggets.
That scuttled the highly anticipated showdown between MVP candidates that many felt could have decided whether Embiid, the runner-up the last two years, denied Jokic a third consecutive award.
Some voters opined Embiid’s day off could cost him MVP first-place votes. Rivers said that wasn’t a fair decision.
“You’re not (MVP) for just one game, that I know of,” Rivers said. “It’s for the entire season of work your team’s record and how you perform. He’s been dominant all year. He’s missed other games, should we ... you know, what I’m saying. Will that hurt him? I doubt it but it could. I don’t know what people use as a criteria. It seems like it changes weekly what the real criteria is.”
The MVP is voted on regular-season play. The real criteria for a successful season these days for Embiid is a title.
“There's a bigger goal in sight, that's to make sure we're healthy for the playoffs,” he said.
The 76ers are not only coming off a four-game trip, they wrapped a stretch where they played 12 of 15 games this month on the road.
“Let's get through this game and I then I think we can take a deep breath,” Rivers said. “I think the first game is hard. Then you can get your legs back.”
The Sixers are off Thursday and play another home game on Friday before the season starts to wind down. Embiid and Harden are banged up but can get some time off once the play-in tournament starts.
“I'm not worried about rest as much anymore,” Rivers said. “That the one great thing about the play-in. You do get a little bit of time to practice and rest. We are probably way more focused on conditioning than we are rest.”
Mavericks: Led by 12 points in the first half.
76ers: The start of the second half was briefly delayed because one of the nets needed to be replaced.
Mavericks: At Miami on Saturday night.
76ers: Host Toronto on Friday night.
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Dan Gelston, The Associated Press