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A tale of two centers: Jokic tries to stay on top…

NEW YORK (AP) — Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are the NBA’s top center men, with the two centers having combined for the last three regular-season MVP awards and perhaps another soon.

It is in the late season where their paths are so different.

Jokic cemented his place among the game’s greats by leading the Denver Nuggets to the NBA title last year, and he appears intent on staying at the top.

Embiid is just trying to stay on the field.

He has rarely been healthy enough to put on a real performance in a championship game and he is already at less than full strength one game into this postseason.

Jokic will look to lead the Nuggets to a 2-0 lead over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday, while the Philadelphia 76ers hope Embiid can help them even their series against the New York Knicks.

The Cleveland Cavaliers host the Orlando Magic in the other game on Monday after winning the series opener.

Jokic had 32 points and 12 rebounds in Denver’s 114-103 win on Saturday. He has scored 20 or more points in 20 consecutive playoff games.

“We see it all the time, man,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Nikola is a great player and the bigger the stage, the brighter the lights, he just keeps shining.”

Embiid appeared to be on his way to a dominant night against the Knicks before he appeared to re-injure his surgically repaired left knee after throwing the ball off the backboard to himself and throwing it onto the ground late in the first half. Last season’s MVP and scoring champion returned to finish with 29 points but looked limited, going 2 for 11 after halftime and missing all five shots in the fourth quarter.

He has missed at least one game in each of the past three postseasons. But he returned after sitting out two months following surgery on Feb. 6 to help the 76ers reach the playoffs, and his teammates weren’t surprised that he continued to play in Game 1 in pain.

“He’s always a fighter, he’ll always try to give everything for his team,” All-Star Tyrese Maxey said. “So if he’s able to go, if he thinks he can go, then he’ll definitely be there.”

Donovan Mitchell battled his own knee problems in the second half of the season but looked sharp with 30 points as Cleveland defeated Orlando 97-83 on Saturday in a strong rebound after being battered by the Knicks last year.

“This is what the series is going to look like,” said Mitchell, who was so anxious about Game 1 that he could only sleep a few hours. “How do you respond? That has been my message all year. We’re going to get beat up. We’re going to turn the ball over. We will have bad possessions.

“We’re not going to shoot. Things like that are going to happen. That was a great response.”

MAGIC IN CAVALIERS

Cleveland leads 1-0. Game 2, 7pm EDT, NBA TV/fubo

– NEED TO KNOW: The Cavs passed the first test. Bigger ones are coming. Lifted by a raucous crowd, Cleveland held firm as Orlando got feisty. Magic forward Franz Wagner’s rough play led to some jawing, pushing and a few technical fouls. Expect the magic to remain physical.

– KEEP AN EYE ON: Orlando’s Paolo Banchero. The All-Star forward scored 24 points in his playoff debut, but it took a while to get going. Banchero was far too careless with the ball and committed nine of Orlando’s 12 turnovers. The Cavs did a good job of adding an extra defenseman to Banchero, putting him in awkward situations.

– Injury Watch: A week’s rest seemed to do wonders for Mitchell, who was bustling around with his usual burst and lift. It will be interesting to see what he looks like with just one day of recovery.

– THE PRESSURE IS ON: Magic guard Jalen Suggs. He should try to contain Mitchell and provide something offensively after a 4-of-16 shooting performance, including 1-of-7 on 3s. At least he made a shot, Orlando’s other guards Garry Harris, Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony were a combined 0 for 17.

76ERS AT KNICKS

New York leads 1-0. Game 2, 7:30 PM EDT, TNT

– NEED TO KNOW: The 76ers forced All-Star Jalen Brunson to shoot 8-for-26 in Game 1, but other Knicks made them pay. Deuce McBride made five three-pointers, Josh Hart four and Bojan Bogdanovic three.

– KEEP AN EYE ON: The rebound battle. The Knicks chase offensive boards as hard as anyone, grabbing 23 in Game 1 en route to a 55-33 overall lead and a 26-8 edge in second-chance points.

– Injury watch: Embiid is again listed as questionable for Game 2. The Sixers cleared him to start in Game 1 after he went through pregame practice and that could be the same plan on Monday.

– THE PRESSURE IS ON: Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. Embiid needs help on the boards when he’s limited, and the starting forwards’ combined 12 rebounds were one fewer than Hart himself.

LAKES AT NUGGETS

Nuggets lead 1-0. Game 2, 10pm EDT, TNT

– NEED TO KNOW: The Nuggets got off to a slow start to begin defending the franchise’s first NBA championship, but they dominated the Lakers for most of the night in their playoff opener, finishing in both opportunities like scoring 10 points better in the paint. They also defeated LA 21–14 on fast breaks. Although LeBron James (27) and Anthony Davis (32) combined for 59 points, James had a quiet second half, committing seven of the Lakers’ 12 turnovers, while the Nuggets had just four, including just one of their starters.

– KEEP AN EYE ON: Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, who missed 14 of 20 shots but didn’t seem bothered by that 30% shooting clip, said he was excited to take that many shots and thinks a higher percentage of which will fall into the game 2.

– Watch for injuries: Both teams are healthy to start the postseason. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray, who missed seven games later with a balky knee, logged 39 minutes without any issues in Game 1.

– THE PRESSURE IS ON: Los Angeles, which hasn’t beaten the Nuggets in nearly 500 days. The Lakers have lost nine straight to the Nuggets, even though they have led more than Denver in all nine games, making 204 free throw attempts to the Nuggets’ 130 during that streak. Saturday night, the Lakers were 17 of 19 from the line and Denver was just 5 of 6.

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AP sports writers Pat Graham and Arnie Stapleton in Denver and Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA