As Nikola Jokic casually recorded his 29th triple-double of the season to burnish his credentials in a possible third consecutive MVP season, Monday’s game against the visiting – and curiously shorthanded – Philadelphia 76ers was a laugher for the Denver Nuggets… until it wasn’t.

Coach Michael Malone was forced to put most of his starters back into the game after the Nuggets surrendered nearly all of a 22-point lead late in the fourth quarter before regaining control in the final two minutes to win a tighter-than-it-should-have been, 116-111 victory. “We have to be a hell of a lot better,” an exasperated Malone said after a game in which the Nuggets racked up 34 assists and put five players into double-digits while creating a highlight-reel of dunks. Nevertheless, Denver’s defense vanished in the fourth quarter, allowing a collection of second-tier Sixers to mount an inspired charge back into the game.

Sixers star center Joel Embiid, missed Monday’s game as a “precautionary measure” given that Philadelphia was playing their third game in four nights, and James Harden – who has been suffering through an Achilles’ tendon injury – joined him on the injury list, despite being ready to play until the moment when Embiid was ruled out. After publicly lobbying for the league’s MVP award over the last two seasons, Embiid’s status – he hasn’t played in Denver since the early days of the 2019-20 campaign – was immediately questioned. “It was not a hard decision for us,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said. “Everybody wants to see these two guys play against each other, [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.”

The two guys – Embiid and Jokic – are leading contenders for the league’s Most Valuable Player award, and coming into the game, Embiid was considered more likely to win. That may have changed, however, when it was revealed that Embiid wouldn’t play. Presumably, since he had played well in a loss to Phoenix on Saturday, Embiid would have relished the opportunity to out-play Jokic, the defending, two-time award winner, and it would have been hard to envision Rivers and the Sixers keeping him out of the game against his will. The decision may cost him the award outright. Jokic (25 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists) made another statement, while national experts suggested the Embiid had made his. “Joel Embiid is ducking that smoke today, and you all know how I feel about Joel Embiid,” ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins said. Perkins started a firestorm of controversy this month with his racially-tinged defense of the Philadelphia center’s candidacy. “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.”

The former Celtics big man saved his most withering criticism for last. “You cannot sit out this game,” Perkins exclaimed. “I have a vote – and I’m going to remember this moment.”

More importantly, the decision likely cost Philadelphia a valuable game in the standings. A top-two seed in the East now looks out of reach for them, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are hot on their heels for this place, now trailing by only 1.5 games. None of that is the Nuggets’ concern, however. Now 3.5 games (and the tie-breaker) ahead of second-place Memphis in the West with only eight left to play, Denver has a stranglehold on the conference’s top seed; something that they’ve never before achieved in their NBA history.

Tyrese Maxey led the game, and the Sixers, with 29 points. Jamal Murray had 19 for the Nuggets to trail only Jokic, while Bruce Brown (18 points) and rookie Christian Braun (8 points) created sparks off the bench, and generated the majority of the Nuggets’ defensive energy; something that Malone made sure to remind his team of following their close call. “We don’t base our approach on who’s available, who’s not,” Malone said, referring to Embiid’s absence. “We’re coming off of a great win [over Milwaukee on Saturday] and there can’t be a hangover. This team beat us in Philly. … We have eight games to go. It’s about us trying to find some consistency, especially on the defensive end.”