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Three Things to Know: Embiid? Jokic? Antetokounmpo? NBA MVP race closest in years

Nikola Jokic is pushing himself into the conversation for greatest big man in basketball history as he fights for his second NBA MVP award in a row.

Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.

1) Embiid? Jokic? Antetokounmpo? MVP race closest in years

I have no idea who will get my NBA MVP vote in a month. The only thing I know for sure is that I will lose sleep figuring it out.

In a normal year, this race would feel decided by now and sports talk debate shows would have to argue even more about what Aaron Rodgers should have done. The NBA MVP race would be all but over. Joel Embiid would have the trophy locked up by now. There would be no argument when voters looked at his statistical case combined with the eye test of watching him dominate opponents.

It isn’t a normal year.

Nikola Jokic should have that exact same lock on the award right now with his play and statistics — he won the MVP award last season and has been better this season (especially on defense). Instead, Jokic is step-for-step with Embiid.

The same is true of Giannis Antetokounmpo, even if he gets overlooked a little by the race handicappers. More than the others, watching him control the flow of a game on both ends in person is almost necessary to appreciate his greatness, it’s not simply highlights.

For the first time in five years — since the Westbrook/Harden/Leonard year of 2017 — the NBA MVP race is legitimately up for a three-way debate with just over a month left in the season. As John Hollinger noted yesterday at The Athletic (and others have as well), the trio of Embiid, Jokic and Antetokounmpo are all having historic NBA seasons, the kind that would have them clearing out space in the trophy case for their new hardware. This season, it’s too close to call between the three of them.

Here is just a quick and dirty outline of a few statistics to compare the trio (this uses PER, true shooting percentage, and the estimated +/- comes from Dunks and Threes, all stats with flaws but they help paint a picture). It’s almost a toss-up.

MVP stats

The dominant seasons from that trio has left guys with impressive seasons — DeMar DeRozan, Stephen Curry, Ja Morant, Luka Doncic — battling it out for the last two spots on the five-player ballot. (Chris Paul would have been in that conversation, but his thumb fracture will have him missing too much time.) I have yet to do a deep enough dive to decide who I will vote in those final slots, and with a month to go in the season that vote could change as well. It is up in the air.

If I had to vote today, the top of my ballot would be:

1. Nikola Jokic
2. Joel Embiid
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

I put a lot of weight on the “valuable” part of MVP — how much did this player mean to his team’s success. Again this year this is splitting hairs. First, while Philadelphia is the No. 2 seed out East and Denver is “just” the No. 6 seed out West, in reality, 1.5 games separate the 76ers, Bucks, and Nuggets in the standings. Again, almost a toss up.

With Jamal Murray Michael Porter Jr. out basically the entire season in Denver, Jokic has had to do more, carry more — Denver outscored opponents by 9.3 per 100 when he is on the court and gets outscored by 7.3 when he sits. Jokic means everything to Denver.

Embiid was without Ben Simmons all season, but he did have Tyrese Maxey step up (his growth at the point this season let Daryl Morey wait out James Harden). Antetokounmpo has been forced to play more center and vary his role with Brook Lopez out, but he still has Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Both the 76ers and the Bucks get outscored when Embiid and Antetokounmpo are off the court, and it’s not fair to punish them because their teams are deeper, but in this tight race it’s a matter of degrees and Jokic has had to do more.

I don’t know who I am going to vote for in a month. This race will evolve and my thinking (and vote) will change along with it. The only thing that is certain is myself and a lot of other voters are literally going to lose sleep trying to figure out who is on top between Jokic, Embiid, and Antetokounmpo. There is no runaway winner this year.

2) Kyrie Irving drops 50 on Hornets in “master class”

I’m in the camp willing to write Brooklyn out of title contention this season. The Nets have dropped 6-of-8 and are just 1-2 since Kevin Durant returned from injury. Their defense is not good enough and Jayson Tatum poked big holes in it over the weekend. Maybe Ben Simmons helps plug some of those holes, but he is weeks away and we don’t know how he is going to perform. And the Nets are just 6-11 with Kyrie Irving in uniform this season.

Then Kyrie Irving just takes over a game, drops 50 as he dominates the Hornets to get the Nets a win, and you’re reminded of the ridiculous potential of this team.

“That was master class,” Kevin Durant said, via the Associated Press.

Irving hit nine 3-pointers, shot 15-of-19 overall. and lifted the Nets to a win that snapped their four-game losing streak. Irving also was 11-of-13 from the free throw line.

It was a dominant performance. Does anyone believe the Nets can have that kind of performance four times in a seven game series? I’m not there yet. But with Irving and Durant, this team still has the talent to overwhelm anyone on any given night.

3) Darius Garland drops 41 with 13 dimes to get Cavaliers win

Darius Garland is exceptional and speaking of awards he has to get mentioned in the Most Improved Player discussion.

He made his case for the award on Tuesday night with a career-high 41 points, plus he had 13 assists and was clutch with a pair of free throws with :14 seconds left, leading Cleveland past Indiana for a much needed win.

Evan Mobley (speaking of awards, he is still your Rookie of the Year) scored 22 points, including a putback to tie the game in the final minutes, plus had 12 rebounds on the night.

Cleveland, which had lost 6-of-7, has now won a couple in a row and may have righted the ship.

Highlight of the Night: Jackie Moon inspires Klay Thompson

Klay Thompson continues to search for his groove since returning to action — he scored 20 points against the Clippers Tuesday, but needed 23 shots to get there. It’s not a surprise after more than two years off, but Thompson is not his vintage self yet.

Thompson got some inspiration from Will Ferrell Jackie Moon, the legendary Flint Tropics owner/coach/starting forward/pregame announcer who helped the ABA team win the MegaBowl on Tuesday.

Jackie Moon from the logo — Love Me Sexy that man can shoot.

Yesterday’s scores:

Brooklyn 132, Charlotte 121
Cleveland 127, Indiana 124
Phoenix 102, Orlando 99
Memphis 132, New Orleans 111
Milwaukee 142, Oklahoma City 115
Golden State 112, LA Clippers 97