Ahead of a much-anticipated meeting of two MVP front-runners, the Philadelphia 76ers ruled out center Joel Embiid against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic on Monday night.
Embiid has been laboring with a sore right calf, and the Sixers decided to take a precautionary approach given the density of the team's recent schedule.
Embiid did try to give it a go at the shootaround Monday morning, but the Sixers decided to give him some rest. Monday's game in Denver, a 116-111 Philadelphia loss, was the Sixers' third in four nights. Embiid played in both legs of the Sixers' back-to-back against the Warriors and Suns on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
"When someone says calf, in my opinion -- even though I'm not medical -- you just can't play [around] with them," Sixers coach Doc Rivers said ahead of the game. "You just don't. They're also slow [to heal]. We've been that way all year with everybody with that, and calves are tough."
James Harden, who had missed three straight games because of a sore Achilles, participated in the morning shootaround and was listed as questionable before being downgraded to out 30 minutes ahead of tipoff.
Embiid scored 46 points -- including 13 consecutive points in the fourth quarter -- to go with 9 rebounds and 8 assists in a 120-112 loss at Golden State before finishing with 28 points and 10 rebounds in a 125-105 loss at Phoenix.
Those games came after Embiid sat out of the second half of a blowout win in Chicago on Wednesday because of right calf tightness, a game he could've returned to but the team chose to be cautious with him given it wasn't a competitive game.
When asked if he wished Embiid had sat out one of the games on the back-to-back so he could've been ready to go against Denver, Rivers said Embiid was healthy during those games and "when you're healthy, you play, and when you're not, you don't."
Monday's game was a significant date on the NBA calendar because of the fact that Embiid and Jokic, again, appear locked in a battle to be named the NBA's Most Valuable Player this season. Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second, in that order, each of the past two seasons, and Jokic led ESPN's latest MVP straw poll last month, taking 77 of the first-place votes, while Embiid was third behind Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Various sportsbooks have installed Embiid as a slight favorite in recent weeks after his dominant post-All-Star break stretch of play. With the news of Embiid resting Monday night, the gap closed and both candidates were at -130 to win the award before Monday's game tipped off, according to Caesars Sportsbook.
In the first game between these teams on Jan. 28 in Philadelphia, Embiid put together a dominant performance -- 47 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists -- to lead Philadelphia back from a 15-point deficit in a victory over Denver.
Embiid, the league's leading scorer at 33.3 points per game, scored 28 of his points in the second half of that contest, and he told ESPN afterward that he believes this year's version of the 76ers is the best team he has been a part of in his NBA career.
Since the All-Star break, Embiid has been utterly dominant, averaging 34.1 points per game on 56.9% shooting to go along with 10.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.4 blocks per game -- all while playing against the NBA's most difficult schedule, per ESPN's Stats & Information research.
He has had the league's highest usage rate (37.2%) since the All-Star break, and he has scored 40.2% of Philadelphia's points when he's on the court this month -- the highest percentage of any player in the league.
Harden, 33, now has missed the past four games because of left Achilles soreness after going 2-for-14 in 47 minutes in Philadelphia's loss to Chicago at home a week ago. He has been with the 76ers throughout their three-game road trip, and 76ers coach Doc Rivers said before Friday's game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco that there was a chance Harden could return against Phoenix on Saturday and a "better" chance he was going to play Monday in Denver.
Harden participated fully in Philadelphia's morning shootaround -- a marked change from the limited work he was able to do Friday -- and ended his time on the court with an emphatic dunk after passing the ball to himself off the backboard.
In his first full season with the 76ers, Harden is leading the league with an average of 10.8 assists per game, in addition to averaging 21.4 points. Embiid and Harden are on pace to be the first teammates to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season since Johnny Moore and George Gervin did it for the San Antonio Spurs in 1982.
ESPN's Tim Bontemps contributed to this story.