The Sixers (31-16) hosted the Denver Nuggets (34-15) on Saturday afternoon. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to seven games. Denver hoped to get back on track after a loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee. Joel Embiid outdueled two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic handily, making a statement for his MVP consideration and earning the Sixers a marquee win, 126-119.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Nuggets were without the services of Collin Gillespie, who is recovering from a fracture in his lower right leg. Jack White missed the game with a left adductor strain.
Michael Malone started Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Jokic.
The Sixers were without Julian Champagnie and Louis King, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
There was no time for Embiid to play games in this one. Not on a Saturday matinee drawing a national audience. He did not wait to get going, smelling blood as soon as he caught the basketball around the nail. On his first five touches of the game, Jokic was the only blue jersey preventing Embiid from getting to the basket. That wasn’t lasting long. Embiid squared his hips to his defender and used the speed of his first step to blow by Jokic, drawing a foul on the two-time reigning MVP on his way into a bank shot.
Embiid approached the first half much the same way, looking to dominate Jokic in space every chance he could. He followed that first bucket with another aggressive drive to the cup, Jokic offering little resistance. Embiid’s jumper was there all first half, too, the big guy dribbling into pull-ups around the nail and lacing triples on back-to-back possessions towards the end of the first quarter. Embiid did a very good job of not selling himself short on his touches. He let his read of Denver’s defense dictate his move. As a result, he executed on driving lanes when they presented. He got to his jump shot, but it wasn’t the foundation of his game.
Embiid also dialed up his effort on the glass, claiming 11 boards to go along with his 19 points through the first 24 minutes, pretty handily winning the battle with Jokic before intermission.
The Sixers weren’t ready to say “die”, though. With a 15-point disadvantage to make up over the final 24 minutes, Philadelphia made some changes to reinvigorate their defensive chops. Tucker took the primary assignment on Jokic, with Embiid acting as more of a free safety. It’s one thing when the most intimidating defender on the floor is right in your face. Maybe you can’t score, yourself. But, court vision isn’t taken away. The four teammates can help you. It’s another thing when the most intimidating defender on the floor is the helper, reading your move and acting accordingly.
Embiid acting as the roamer allowed him to read Jokic’s first move and make defensive plays. Even if the Sixers weren’t in position to deny cutters the backdoor, Embiid was able to make plays on backdoor passes. He deterred lobs toward the rim, intercepted passes across the lane, and offered helper contests once Jokic committed to his shot. Shifting Embiid into a free safety role won’t work every time. It won’t be the correct adjustment every time, either. But, against the best passing big man of all time, it was the right move.
Not only because Embiid can be more weaponized as a defensive playmaker. There’s also the aspect of Tucker being a bulldog on defense. Say what you will about his offense (and, you’re fair to note how much that part of his package has dropped off). But, Tucker’s role as the primary on Jokic was critical. He used his lower center of gravity to get under the big man and bother him, and then used his strength to keep Jokic from backing him down into the paint. Jokic scored eight points, dished four assists, and committed six turnovers after halftime. Embiid and Tucker, together, shut him down.
With Jokic essentially useless, the other hub of Denver’s offense was Murray. If the Tucker adjustment was the most critical moment in the game, the Sixers’ use of zone and Thybulle’s defense on Murray was second. The zone made it difficult for Murray to find driving lanes, limiting the playmaking within Denver’s offense. Thybulle also fought through screens, shrinking the space Murray had to pull up for jumpers off the dribble or curl around off-ball screens into catch-and-shoots. Even when Murray could do something with the ball in his hands, Thybulle swarmed him, making it difficult for the Denver guard to collapse the interior and get Philadelphia into rotation. Murray had just nine points and three assists after halftime.
This game flipped on its head in the final two minutes of the third quarter. A Bruce Brown three pushed the Nuggets’ lead back to 15 points after Philadelphia spent the entire third quarter fighting to keep it under 10 following a run to open the third quarter. And for a moment, the energy was sucked out of the building. But, just as has been the case all season, it’s when you think the Sixers are cooked that they show their character.
Georges Niang knocked down a pair of triples in rapid succession. Then, Embiid converted a bucket through a foul to tack on three more points. Then came the momentum-changing moment. Embiid was fouled on a heave to beat the third-quarter buzzer, licensing him to step to the charity stripe for three more free throws. A 15-point lead was nearly wiped away thanks to four consecutive three-point possessions to punctuate a 12-0 run heading into the fourth quarter.
That set up a fourth quarter for the ages. Philadelphia took a 5-point punch from the Nuggets while Embiid rested to open the final frame, opening Denver’s lead back up to eight points. They cut the deficit back to three before Embiid returned, and that was the ballgame.
With the national spotlight on him as he hosted the guy who beat him to the MVP award in each of the last two seasons, Embiid locked in. He sensed a chance to capture the attention and own the story with the display of stardom necessary to get Philadelphia into the win column for the seventh game in a row. Embiid scored 12 points in the final eight minutes of the game, including a stepback triple in the final two minutes to secure the win. His dominance extended to the other side of the floor, Embiid proving his status as a two-way beast with a pair of blocks in the final quarter.
It was the opportunity he’d been waiting for for a year, the Sixers losing last season’s matchup between the two stud centers. And Embiid answered the challenge, besting Jokic at both the team level and the individual level to write his MVP statement in the Sixers’ first game since he was snubbed of an All-Star starting nod.
One quick nod to Harden, who was a passenger to Embiid’s poster game. He only scored 17 points, but The Beard dished 13 assists. He also knocked down three of his six attempts from deep, each triple coming at a time when the Sixers desperately needed to answer a Nuggets punch. Harden is quietly shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc this season, tying a career-best mark.
There’s something poetic about Tucker struggling on offense all game, only to officially knock the Nuggets out with a putback tip-in after crashing the offensive glass for a teammate’s missed shot. Kudos to Tucker, didn’t know he still had the hops to get up there amongst the trees.
As the first quarter went on, you felt like Embiid lost that edge he had to start the game. Perhaps the adrenaline retreated and the emotions settled down. But, it felt like he lost focus after the hot start. He missed his first three free throw attempts, a classic sign that he wasn’t focused. Embiid was also stripped by Jokic as he lifted into jumpers on back-to-back touches in the first quarter. When you get beat the same way in consecutive possessions, it’s a sign that you’re not locked in.
Embiid picked up two fouls in the first quarter. While he deserves significant kudos for staying disciplined and playing his way out of foul trouble the rest of the way, some overly-physical defense threatened to limit his availability in one of the biggest regular-season games of his career.
You expected him to come out and light the world on fire from start to finish. Anything less than that would’ve been disappointed. It’s one thing to just miss shots in an important game. You’re playing poorly, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes. In that case, it just is what it is. It’s another thing to play immaturely, trying to do too much and losing control as you let out pent-up frustration. Fortunately for the Sixers and their fans, that stretch of doing too much ultimately proved irrelevant as the game went on.
Help defenders failed Embiid’s best efforts throughout the first half. With the game’s big defensive adjustment yet to come, Embiid was the primary defender on Jokic. The Serbia native was up to his usual tricks, delivering gorgeous passes to teammates with precision. As long as his teammates move around him, Jokic can dominate a game doing little of the scoring himself. And there the Sixers were, stepping out of position and affording blue jerseys alleys to back-cut. There was an abundance of examples to pick from; Harden was backdoored by Gordon and Niang by Jeff Green, just to name a few. The Nuggets got easy buckets at the rim taking advantage of the Sixers’ lack of off-ball focus all over the place in the first 24 minutes.
The other issue was keeping tabs on shooters. Denver punished the Sixers for falling asleep in transition and straying too far away from home in the halfcourt. The Nuggets ripped long passes for open threes all first half long. There came a point when both sides were scoring. But, Denver seized control because three points is worth more than two points.
Defending Jokic in single coverage is a good idea. But, you can’t just be in that scheme in theory. He’s not a great one-on-one player. Jokic kills you by spraying the ball around the floor. Everyone in the world knows that. So, putting a great individual defender on him and not doubling is a nice concept. But, it doesn’t matter if the helpers aren’t focused and disciplined. If they’re letting Jokic’s four teammates move around the floor at will, it doesn’t matter who is guarding Jokic individually.
Single coverage against Jokic only works if the helpers are sharp. They have to make it difficult for Jokic’s supporting cast to find and relocate to pockets of space on the floor. Jokic’s stardom lies in feeding his teammates; you have to take away the spoon. The Sixers did an absolutely abhorrent job of that in the first half.
The lack of focus in the first half was no more apparent than at the free throw line and on simple pick-and-roll defense. Philadelphia shot 4-for-10 from the stripe, a complete anomaly. It wasn’t just one guy, either. Harden, Embiid, and Maxey all missed freebies. Perhaps one of the most memorable baskets of the first half was a simple Murray pull-up three after clearing a screen. He was left wide open because his man went under the screen. But, the screen defender dropped back or stayed with the screener. No one was close to the explosive Denver point guard, and he laced an easy three. That’s a travesty for the Sixers’ defense.
Denver shot nearly 66 percent from the field in the first half. Brooklyn shot nearly 65 percent over the entire game on Wednesday. The Sixers will surely take the wins. But, simply outscoring the opposition is not a winning formula.
The Sixers (32-16) will host the Orlando Magic (19-30) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.