LOS ANGELES: Philadelphia 76ers big-man Joel Embiid outdueled Denver’s two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and the Boston Celtics edged the Los Angeles Lakers 125-121 in overtime as rivalries took center stage in the NBA on Saturday.
Embiid, who finished runner-up to Jokic in voting for Most Valuable Player honors the past two seasons, poured in 47 points to lead the 76ers to a 126-119 victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Cameroon’s Embiid also grabbed 18 rebounds to help the Sixers erase a 15-point halftime deficit on the way to a seventh straight victory.
Embiid, who also missed out on selection as an All-Star Game starter this week, downplayed the idea of a personal rivalry with Jokic, saying the contest was about the 76ers testing themselves against the Western Conference’s top team.
“I love the big fella,” he told broadcaster ABC of Jokic. “I’m a big fan.”
“I think he’s more of a motivation to go out and try to win the whole thing,” Embiid said. “I guess that’s the only way I’m probably going to get that respect.”
Embiid was everywhere in the second half, his step-back jumper knotting the score at 110-110 with 5:48 remaining.
After his block on Jamal Murray, Embiid scored on the fastbreak to put the 76ers up for good, and he drained a step-back three-pointer over Jokic that pushed Philadelphia’s lead to 125-117 with 30.1 seconds to play.
Jokic led the Nuggets with 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists.
The 76ers improved to 32-16, and they were two and a half games behind the league-leading Celtics after Boston rallied to beat the Lakers in a game that featured 19 lead changes.
The Lakers led by seven midway through the fourth quarter, but Jaylen Brown converted a three-point play to tie it up at 105-105 with 4.1 seconds left.
He went on to score 11 points in the extra session after LeBron James’s drive to the basket at the end of regulation ended in a miss, with James and the Lakers pleading for a foul call after Jayson Tatum appeared to brush his arm.
The call didn’t come and Boston prevailed, withstanding a 41-point performance from James to end a three-game skid.
“The best player on Earth can’t get a call – it’s amazing,” said Lakers coach Darvin Ham, who spoke of the “agony” of losing such a huge game.
“I don’t understand it,” James said, adding that he didn’t think it was the first time a non-call proved costly to the Lakers this season.
Brown preferred to focus not on officiating or the rivalry but on Boston’s quest to remain the dominant team in the East.
“It was a much-needed win,” he said. “We lost the last three, so we wanted to come out and get a win today.”
Ham noted that any game between the Celtics and Lakers — who have faced each other a record 12 times in the NBA Finals — is “always hotly contested.”
Brooklyn Nets coach Jacque Vaughn said that “generational” rivalry made his team’s crosstown rivalry with the New York Knicks look puny — an impression that only increased when the Nets notched a ninth straight win over the Knicks, 122-115.
With superstar Kevin Durant and teammate Ben Simmons sidelined by injury, Kyrie Irving scored 32 points, coming alive with 21 fourth-quarter points as the Nets held on, even after the Knicks — who trailed by as many as 19 — cut the deficit to three points with 3:07 to play.
Irving posted his sixth straight game of 30 or more points.
Elsewhere, Chris Paul scored 31 points and Mikal Bridges added 25 as the Phoenix Suns spoiled San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich’s 74th birthday with a 128-118 overtime victory over the Spurs.
Phoenix never trailed, but the Spurs forced overtime with a late surge in regulation before Bridges and Paul scored eight points apiece in the extra session and the Suns escaped.
In Atlanta, Kawhi Leonard scored 32 points and Paul George added 23 to lead the Los Angeles Clippers to a fifth straight victory, 120-113 over the Hawks.