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Joel Embiid edges Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo for his first NBA MVP award

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid finally broke through the barrier that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokić had built, beating both two-time NBA MVPs to win the first trophy named for Michael Jordan.

Embiid, who finished runner-up to Jokić each of the past two seasons, received 73 first-place votes and 915 total points from the 100-member media voting panel. He edged Jokic (15 first-place votes and 674 total points) in the most heated MVP discussion since Russell Westbrook defeated James Harden in 2017.

Antetokounmpo finished third with 12 first-place votes and 606 total points. Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum placed a distant fourth in the MVP voting, and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rounded out the top five.

Jokić owned the advanced statistical advantage for a third straight season, and Antetokounmpo is, by most accounts, the best player alive, leading the NBA's top-ranked team, but Embiid was a regular season force.

He led the league in scoring for a second straight year, averaging 33.1 points per game (on 55/33/86 shooting splits) — the most by a center since Bob McAdoo averaged 34.5 in his 1975 MVP campaign. Embiid added 10.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.7 combined blocks and steals in 34.6 minutes a night.

Only Bill Walton played fewer games in an MVP season than Embiid's 66. Still, when Embiid was on the court this season, the Sixers won almost two-thirds (43) of those games, registering offensive (119.0) and defensive (110.2) ratings that would have ranked first and second if averaged in a full season, respectively.

The 7-foot Cameroonian joins Hakeem Olajuwon as the only African-born players to win the league's MVP award. Embiid is the sixth player born outside the United States to capture the honor, joining two-time winners Jokić, Antetokounmpo and Steve Nash as well as Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki. International players have won the league's last five MVPs and swept the top three spots in the voting for a second straight year.

This year's MVP debate reached a fever pitch at the All-Star break, when a straw poll conducted by ESPN revealed a sizable advantage for Jokić in the voting. ESPN's Kendrick Perkins accused Jokić of "stat-padding" and questioned whether the Serbian is a top-five player in the NBA, fellow former player-turned-analyst J.J. Redick argued to the contrary, and both clumsily confronted the issue of race in MVP voting.

Inside of several weeks, Embiid's hard push for the award and Jokić's indifference down the stretch of the regular season flipped the narrative, and Embiid seized the lead in ESPN's straw poll by the end of March. Yahoo Sports senior writers Vincent Goodwill and Dan Devine both selected Embiid with their official votes.

Embiid's third-seeded Sixers swept the sixth-place Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. He missed Game 4 of their opening-round series and Game 1 of the second-round series against the Celtics, which the Sixers won 119-115. He is reportedly expected to be doubtful for Game 2.