For three quarters, the Philadelphia 76ers steadily took control of Friday's road game against the Denver Nuggets. They entered the fourth with an 84-65 lead.
Denver sleepily wandered through those first three frames in much the same way star Nikola Jokic has for large portions of this season.
Then, suddenly, the 2018-19 first-team All-NBA center woke up and took charge. The Nuggets followed. The result was a 100-97 win and the largest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history:
@OrlandoMagic @cavs @Pacers @SacramentoKings @Raptors @Timberwolves @nyknicks Nikola Jokic wins it late, as the @nuggets put together their largest 4th quarter comeback in franchise history (19 points) to beat Philly! #MileHighBasketball Jamal Murray: 22 PTS, 11 AST Will Barton: 20 PTS Paul Millsap: 15 PTS https://t.co/OFz72VnODq
In the fourth quarter alone, Jokic had 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting, four rebounds and an assist. He was plus-22 in those 12 minutes. For the game, he finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and two blocks.
Joel Embiid, last season's second-team All-NBA center, went for 19 points on 17 shots, grabbed 15 boards, turned the ball over eight times and fouled out after 29 minutes of action.
The historic comeback gave Jokic his first team win over Embiid, but he's been outperforming him individually for years.
Beyond last season's All-NBA voting, a number of metrics that can be found in this offseason's breakdown of the debate favor Jokic.
And the individual numbers in their four head-to-head matchups paint a similar picture:
- Joel Embiid: 19.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.5 blocks, 1.0 steals, 5.3 turnovers, 50.6 true shooting percentage, 12.1 game score
- Nikola Jokic: 23.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 0.8 blocks, 1.5 steals, 2.3 turnovers, 56.4 true shooting percentage, 19.6 game score
Tonight's matchup, another individual triumph for Jokic, was punctuated by the final offensive possessions for each.
First, Jokic drilled a go-ahead jumper over Josh Richardson with 1.2 seconds left.
Then, with the game still up for grabs, Embiid fouled out after pushing Jokic in the back.
In the grand scheme, it's just one game (four, if we go back to the comparison above). But Friday showed there's still work to be done if Embiid wants to be the game's best center.
This was an opportunity for Embiid to quiet the chatter about Philly's lack of a closer. In the wake of Jimmy Butler's departure for the Miami Heat, there was speculation on who might fill that role.
"But one can argue that they lost something in Butler they can't get back," Keith Pompey wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer this summer. "He was a guy that could create his own shot. Just think of all the times he bailed them out down the stretch to win games. Plus, he's one of the better defenders."
The Sixers were in dire need of a bailout Friday, as they lost their grip on a 19-point lead. What they got from Embiid was a 1-of-4 fourth quarter in which he turned the ball over three times, committed three fouls and missed two free throws.
"I have a chance to be winning MVP or Defensive Player of the Year," Embiid told ESPN's Rachel Nichols in October.
There's certainly time to get on track toward those goals, but growing into the role vacated by Butler will be critical if Embiid wants to be a legitimate part of the MVP conversation. Right now, he's not in the top 10 of Basketball Reference's model that predicts MVP probability.
The player who finished ahead of him on the All-NBA ballot last season, Jokic, has had no such issues taking over when it matters most. His candidacy for the game's highest individual honor may have been resurrected in Friday's win.
"So the Nuggets are 5-1 in clutch games this year and Nikola Jokic has been virtually unstoppable in those moments," Blue Wire's T.J. McBride tweeted. "He has a 125.4 offensive rating, 92.2 defensive rating, and a plus-33.3 net rating in clutch situations and has an 81.6 true shooting percentage."
This isn't new for Jokic. In 2018-19, he and Embiid attempted about the same number of field goals per 100 possessions in the clutch. But Jokic's 53.5 effective field-goal percentage was far better than Embiid's 44.7.
And in the postseason, when entire games are high-leverage, Jokic posted the 16th-best single-playoff box plus/minus in NBA history (minimum 100 minutes). Embiid's 2018-19 postseason box plus/minus ranks 611th on that list.
Ball security remains an issue for Embiid, as well. Among players with at least as many career minutes, Embiid's 4.2 turnovers per 75 possessions is fifth-most all time. Only Ernie DiGregorio, Robert Pack, Russell Westbrook and George McGinnis are ahead of him on that dubious list.
Taking better care of possessions, something Embiid tabbed as a weakness in the previously referenced interview with Nichols, doesn't suddenly make him the league's best 5. But it does bring him closer.
Becoming the go-to guy, and coming through as such, closes the gap a little more.
Both have more to do with mentality than ability.
In terms of natural gifts, few in the history of the sport are on the same level as Embiid. When the 7-footer is locked in, he can make plays like a wing on the perimeter. He can hit one-legged fadeaways from 15 feet out. He has post moves reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon. He can defend all over the floor. He's a legitimate anchor on that end who can protect the rim and recover better than most his size.
If there were some way to chart raw talent, Embiid would be off of it.
It's the little things that he needs to nail down. And though some of these things may seem nitpicky, they come to the forefront when Embiid faces superior competition.
Right now, Jokic is superior competition.