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Thursday's NBA: MVP finalists released; Pistons' Jerami Grant up for most improved

Associated Press
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Denver’s Nikola Jokic finished ninth in the MVP voting last season. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Golden State’s Stephen Curry didn’t get listed on a single ballot a year ago.

A year later, one of them will walk away with the NBA’s highest individual prize.

Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9) takes a shot against Atlanta Hawks guard Kris Dunn (32) during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game Monday, April 26, 2021, in Detroit.

Jokic, Embiid and Curry were revealed Thursday night as the three top votegetters for this year’s NBA MVP award, one that will be presented sometime during the playoffs. Curry is a two-time winner, Jokic’s best previous finish was fourth in 2019 and Embiid’s best MVP showing was seventh in 2019.

Jokic would be the first Denver player to win MVP. Embiid would be Philadelphia’s first winner since Allen Iverson in 2001 and Curry could become the ninth player in NBA history to win the trophy three times.

The 18 top-three vote-getters in six award categories — MVP, coach of the year, most improved player, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year and sixth man of the year — were announced Thursday.

The Utah Jazz, who finished with the NBA’s best record and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, had a league-best four finalists. New York, back in the playoffs for the first time since 2013 as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, had three award finalists.

The Jazz and Knicks swept the top-three spots in the sixth man of the year category, with Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles both making the list from Utah and former NBA MVP Derrick Rose from New York getting a finalist nod there as well.

Denver, Philadelphia and Golden State had two finalists apiece, while Phoenix, Detroit, Charlotte, Minnesota and Sacramento had one each.

The finalists

Most valuable player — Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets.

Coach of the year — Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz; Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks; Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns.

Defensive player of the year — Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz; Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors; Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers.

Most improved player — Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons; Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets; Julius Randle, New York Knicks.

Rookie of the year — LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets; Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves; Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings.

Sixth man of the year — Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz; Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz; Derrick Rose, New York Knicks.

Beal, Westbrook lead Wiz past Pacers for East 8 seed

Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal did what they do — a near triple-double for one, 25 points in just 29 minutes for the other — and the Washington Wizards reached the NBA playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s No. 8 seed by overwhelming the Indiana Pacers 142-115 in the play-in round Thursday night.

Washington Wizards guard Russell Westbrook reacts to the crowd during the second half of the team's NBA basketball Eastern Conference play-in game against the Indiana Pacers, Thursday, May 20, 2021, in Washington.

Washington led by as many as 38 points and advanced to face Joel Embiid and the No. 1 seed Philadelphia 76ers in the first round, marking quite a turnaround for coach Scott Brooks' crew, which was 17-32 in early April.

Indiana's run of five consecutive playoff appearances ended in coach Nate Bjorkgren's debut season.

A little more than a week after breaking Oscar Robertson’s career record for most regular-season triple-doubles, Westbrook finished Thursday with 18 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists, and it was Beal — second in the NBA in scoring two years in a row — whose 3-pointer opened up a 30-point lead at 98-68 with about four minutes left in the third quarter.

Beal skipped the fourth quarter entirely. Westbrook sat out the last 8 minutes and tossed his shoes to a fan.

The backcourt mates both heard “M-V-P!” chants during trips to the foul line, as did reserve center Robin Lopez in an appreciative if more tongue-in-cheek way, from a giddy crowd capped at 5,333 — a quarter of the arena's capacity — because of COVID-19 concerns. The coronavirus pandemic is also why the season consisted only of 72 games, instead of the standard 82, and the league created the play-in format involving teams that were 7-10 in each conference.

The Wizards went 17-6 over the last six weeks of the season to finish with the eighth-best record in the East, but then lost the 7-vs.-8 game at the Boston Celtics 118-100 Tuesday. The Pacers won the 9-vs.-10 game at home against the Charlotte Hornets 144-117 that night.

Washington averaged 139.7 points while sweeping the three-game season series against the Pacers and, well, this one had much the same feel. It was close until a little more than 1 1/2 minutes elapsed in the second quarter, when the score was 34-all.

From there, Westbrook took over for a bit, bullying his way through the lane and mean-mugging Pacers players. A 16-0 run fueled by six points from Lopez made it 50-34 and prompted the Pacers to take a timeout. They never recovered.

Heading to the sideline for the break, Westbrook paused on the court to raised a hand and wiggled his fingers while looking into the stands, pleading for more noise. Later, it was Beal — who has been dealing with a strained left hamstring — wind-milling his arms as he and his teammates poured it on, hitting 58.1% of their shot attempts; the visitors only finished above 40% thanks to some fourth-quarter baskets long after the outcome was decided.

Malcolm Brogdon led Indiana with 24 points. Pacers All-Star Domantas Sabonis had a triple-double with 19 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.

They now head into the offseason, while the Wizards are back in the postseason after missing out the past two years before acquiring Westbrook in a trade that sent John Wall to Houston.

Washington dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak that affected more than half of its roster and led to a two-week hiatus. The team also lost two starters for the season with injuries: first-round draft pick Deni Avdija (broken right ankle) — he took shots in the paint while seated on a black folding chair before Thursday's game — and center Thomas Bryant (torn left knee ligament).

Now, though, Westbrook, Beal and Co. get to keep playing.

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