The Sixers (49-25) visited the Denver Nuggets (50-24) on Monday. Philadelphia wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. Denver wanted to extend its winning streak to four games. A late push by the Sixers’ reserves wasn’t enough to overcome a big deficit to the Nuggets in a 116-111 defeat.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without the services of Joel Embiid, who has a tight right calf. James Harden missed the game with a sore left achilles.
Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Dewayne Dedmon.
The Nuggets were without Collin Gillespie, who has a fractured right lower leg. Jack White is in the NBA’s COVID health and safety protocol and was unavailable.
Michael Malone started Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Nikola Jokic.
Virtually all of the good in this game came courtesy of Maxey. The Sixers looked primed for a long night early, the Nuggets jumping out to a double-digit lead fairly early in the first quarter. It wasn’t an electric start for Maxey. Rather, he was thoroughly possessed in the second quarter, keeping Philadelphia in the fight. He was totally unafraid of Denver’s defense at all levels of the floor. He blew by the Nuggets on the perimeter all night, leaving them in quick sand.
Maxey didn’t even pretend to care about Jokic manning the rim, using hesitation moves to clear the big man before getting all the way to the backboard for tight finishes. He sprinkled in a pair of triples and a tough pivoting fadeaway jumper, but the drives and touch were the main story. Nothing the Nuggets did could stop him from getting to the basket. And even when the Nuggets offered decent contests, Maxey had the touch to softly get the ball above the rim with just enough spin to convert difficult layups.
We can talk about whether Maxey needs more touches or whether the Sixers’ regular offense is too two-man centric. The bottom line is that we’ve seen Maxey rise to the occasion in a variety of roles since being re-inserted into the starting lineup. As a second or third option? He’s done it. As the second in command to Embiid or Harden’s primary? He’s done it. As the primary with Embiid and Harden unavailable? Maxey did it in this game.
Most of the remaining good in this game is reserved for Paul Reed. 16 points and 9 rebounds in nearly 17 minutes of action, including 7-for-7 shooting. Reed likes to step out for a midrange baseline jumper from time to time. But, he’s increasingly comfortable finishing at the rim through various levels of difficulty. He doesn’t need to be confined to the block or verticality at the rim, either. Reed took the ball down the floor himself and got the hoop and the harm at full speed. Reed contributed hustle plays all night, eating space against Jokic on defense and knocking the ball away from him a couple times.
He and Tucker are pretty clearly the only players on the roster who are even close to trustworthy as backup fives for when Embiid needs to rest in the playoffs.
An admirable effort by Shake Milton, Jaden Springer, Furkan Korkmaz, Jalen McDaniels, and Montrezl Harrell late in the fourth quarter. They took advantage of the Nuggets, who had taken their feet all the way off the gas with less than five minutes left. Even when Jokic and Murray came back in, that lineup continued its charge. It took a referee missing Jeff Green stepping on the baseline on Denver’s final possession for the Nuggets to stave off a total meltdown in the fourth quarter.
First off, it would be irresponsible of me to bury the lede deep down in the ‘Dislikes’. This game lost basically all of its luster the moment Embiid was ruled out early in the afternoon. That Harden was ruled out late makes me wonder whether the plan was always to rest both stars and forgo the drama of this matchup. Although, Embiid felt discomfort in his calf on Monday morning and was deemed unavailable for the game shortly after the team’s shootaround in Denver. So, perhaps they gave Harden an extra game of rest with Embiid having been ruled out anyway.
Nonetheless, a lot of people excited for this game were disappointed. It’s increasingly clear that the Sixers are more concerned about health than jockeying for better position heading into the playoffs. But, it was another opportunity to gain ground in the standings and the Sixers basically wrote it off. Of course, the real story is whatever it might mean for Embiid’s case in the MVP conversation. Some pundits with significant audiences or even votes in the award might hold missing the game against the big guy.
In a vacuum, no one should be judged by one game, regardless of the profile of the matchup. It should be determined by a full body of work. That being said, it truly makes no sense that Embiid played in the loss to the Phoenix Suns on Saturday. He clearly had nothing to offer on the second night of a back-to-back. Why not just rest him then so that there’s a better chance he feels good for this matchup against Jokic and Denver?
I guess that’s where you take into consideration that Embiid just woke up and noticed the calf didn’t feel right on Monday. It seems like the injury is a fluid day-to-day situation. So, perhaps that calls into question whether resting for the Suns game would’ve mattered anyway. Just a bummer, and the way it’s been handled, starting with the game in Chicago last week, has been suspect at best.
The two central figures of the offense being out is always a valid and convenient excuse. But, the Sixers did themselves no favors in execution in the first quarter. They did nothing to slow the game down on defense, forcing themselves to find shots late in the clock when defenses naturally tighten up anyway because they know time is an enemy. Misses and live-ball turnovers aplenty, Philadelphia helped Denver get out and run in transition in the first quarter, spotting them an early lead with easy offense.
This is the type of game — down your two best players — in which you want to add more structure to your play-call. Your motion offense and read-and-react concepts should be more for when you’re at full strength. That’s when your primary pillars have the decision-making powers, and everyone plays off of them. With Maxey and Harris licensed to captain the ship in this game, I thought it was the right opportunity to run more structured sets or series of actions. It didn’t seem like the Sixers were operating with that structure, which bred uncertainty in what to do and where to be on the floor. As such, way too much late offense and not nearly enough early action.
Philadelphia hung in all first half, only to pretty much come undone in the third quarter. The defensive breakdowns were a big problem. Denver took advantage of an unfocused Sixers group by cutting around Jokic and making themselves available by the rim. But, the biggest issue was that Philadelphia totally lost its edge on the offensive end. Look on further than the guys on the court seemingly losing the plot. Maxey was the only thing that worked on offense in the first half. He scored 20 of his 25 first-half points in the second quarter. He kept them in the game entirely by himself. And then as soon as the intermission ended, the Sixers couldn’t so much as get the ball to him in positions to score.
The offense was directionless, Harris dribbling the life out of possessions with isolation play or Melton trying to make decisions off the bounce. Maxey became an afterthought when he should’ve resumed his role as the guy. Part of the difficulty was that it wasn’t hard to game plan against an offense that had one and only one guy doing all the work. Denver trapped and blitzed Maxey along the sidelines to force the ball out of his hands. But, his teammates struggled to capitalize on having four-on-three advantages on the other side of the floor.
If you can’t find the weak spot in those advantages, you then have to find a way to get the ball back to the only source of points. The Sixers did not do that. Even worse, they also didn’t do anything to get him open, with or without the ball in his hands. How about a pin-down screen? Maybe a double-drag action? I didn’t notice any of that. Instead, the Sixers’ offense sputtered out of control with various blue jerseys trying to create too much for themselves and playing out of role.
Whatever metrics say Jokic is a good defender, throw them in the garbage. That dude is a revolving door. I lost count of the number of Sixers that drove around him for scores around the rim at will.
The Sixers (49-26) will host the Dallas Mavericks (37-39) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on ESPN.