Joel Embiid dueled against Nikola Jokic and came out on top. He was electrifying, scoring 47 points on 18-of-31 shooting to go with 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks. His performance powered the Philadelphia 76ers to a 126-119 win over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center. The Sixers have won 20 of their last 24 games and now sit at 32-16 on the season.
James Harden added in 17 points, four rebounds and 13 assists. The Sixers shot 51.7% from the field and 51.4% from 3-point range.
Jokic led the Nuggets with 24 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and two blocks. Jamal Murray finished with 22 points, four rebounds and six assists.
The Sixers now sit at 32-16 on the season. Their next matchup is against the Orlando Magic on Monday night at the Wells Fargo Center. Here are three observations from the win:
This game had a ton of extra attention due to the battle between two of the NBA’s top players: Embiid and Jokic. Embiid got off to a roaring start, making an off-balance jumper while getting fouled by Jokic. He scored the Sixers’ first six points, including a good drive and finish around the Denver big man. The Sixers did a solid job attacking Jokic defensively through the first few minutes of the game. However, Jokic began to recover defensively, blocking a pair of Embiid pull-up jumpers. Embiid, uncharacteristically, also missed all three of his free-throw attempts in the opening quarter.
Head coach Doc Rivers attempted to get Embiid a bit of rest, subbing him out of the game with 6:00 minutes remaining in the first quarter. Montrezl Harrell came into the game while Jokic stayed in for Denver. The results, predictably, were not good. Jokic took advantage of a defensive miscommunication by the Sixers, draining a wide open triple. Embiid checked back into the game with 3:35 left in the opening quarter. During the 2:25 stretch he was off the floor, the Nuggets outscored the Sixers 10-5. Embiid, perhaps due a bit to frustration, picked up an offensive foul as he leaned into Jokic in an attempt to clear space around the rim. With 1:51 to play in the first quarter, Rivers elected to keep Embiid in the game for the remainder of the quarter.
Embiid played the first 5:32 of the second quarter before being subbed out. Jokic, who was sitting to begin the quarter, came back into the game at the same time Embiid left. The Sixers survived the ensuing minutes with Harrell matched up against Jokic, only losing them by two points. They received 3-pointers from Tyrese Maxey, Harden and De’Anthony Melton to keep them afloat. Rivers’ decision to not mirror Embiid’s and Jokic’s minutes was mind boggling, and the Sixers were lucky to survive with not too much damage being done.
The Sixers allowed the Brooklyn Nets to shoot 64.5% from the field on Wednesday. Their defense, somehow, was actually worse in the first half against Denver. The Nuggets shot a ridiculous 65.9% from the field in the first half, putting on an absolute clinic.
The game was relatively close for much of the first quarter, but the Nuggets were able to start pulling away in the later minutes of the opening quarter. The catalyst was their hot 3-point shooting, with 3-pointers by Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. giving the Nuggets a 26-18 lead with 4:34 to play in the first quarter. The Nuggets began the game on fire from deep, and the Sixers struggled mightily to run them off the 3-point line. The Sixers’ defense was particularly abysmal in two particular areas: Defending in transition and defending the 3-point line. Transition defense has not been a major issue for the Sixers since earlier this season, but it cropped back up against Denver. Porter Jr.’s 3-pointer came in transition when nobody effectively stepped up to defend the shot.
After battling back in the game early in the second quarter, the Sixers let the game start to slip away. The Nuggets scored on their final 10 possessions of the first half, effectively outscoring the Sixers 23-11 during this stretch. Murray burned the Sixers in the final few minutes of the half, scoring seven points while doing his damage in a variety of ways. He was the recipient of an Aaron Gordon pass for an alley-oop layup in transition on one play. He followed it up by canning a 3-pointer and knocking down a mid-range pull-up jumper. The Sixers went into halftime down 73-58 in large part to their major defensive struggles.
The Sixers played with a lack of focus and intensity defensively. They gave up far too many wide open looks to the Nuggets in the first half. In addition, they were caught watching the ball too often. This led to a plethora of open layups for the Nuggets on back cuts or cuts along the baseline. There is no excuse for this level of defense, especially from a team that prides itself on being among the top defenses in the league. While the Nuggets, who shot 58.8% from beyond the arc in the first half, were red hot from 3-point range, a lot of the Sixers miscues in the opening half were unforced and due to a lack of focus. Between the games against the Nets and Nuggets, the Sixers have a lot of things to correct defensively in order to get back to playing at a high level.
The Sixers were thoroughly outplayed in the opening half, but they immediately came out on fire to begin the second half. They opened up the half on a 15-4 run, cutting the deficit down to four points with 8:59 remaining in the third quarter. The Embiid-Harden pick-and-roll was in full rhythm, and the Nuggets had no answer for it defensively. Embiid made a cutting layup off a Harden dime for two of his six points during this run, forcing a Denver timeout.
Tobias Harris, after going scoreless in the first half, also came out with some aggression in the second half. He scored six points, all on driving layups, in the first few minutes of the second half. Embiid and Harden did their best to keep the Sixers in the game in the first half. However, receiving production from the supporting cast in the second half was going to be necessary for the team to get back into the game. Harris would go on to knock down a pair of big 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 14 points, six rebounds, two assists and a steal.
In addition to coming out guns blazing offensively, the Sixers made a key defensive adjustment. Embiid was defending Jokic in the first half, but Rivers switched the pesky P.J. Tucker onto Jokic. The results were positive. Jokic scored just six points in the third quarter as Tucker consistently battled him for position. The lone thing that stopped Tucker, forcing him out of the game, was foul trouble. He was called for a soft foul on Jokic and was subsequently called for a technical foul after arguing with the referee. It was his fourth foul of the game, resulting in Rivers taking him out with 3:28 left in the third quarter. Tucker gets a lot of flack for disappearing offensively. However, his ability to be a tough, pesky defender while taking on tough defensive matchups (often including battling through a big size mismatch) is the reason why the Sixers signed him last offseason.
The Sixers spent much of the third quarter attempting to get over the hump. After tightening the game up in the opening minutes of the quarter, the Nuggets responded with a run of their own. However, Embiid and the Sixers were able to start generating momentum in the final minutes of the quarter. Embiid got the crowd to their feet with a powerful reverse slam dunk after driving past Jokic.
WOW. pic.twitter.com/J0VBixdZjL— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 28, 2023
The Nuggets answered with a few buckets of their own, extending their lead back to 99-84 with 2:27 left in the third quarter. However, Georges Niang made a couple of critical 3-pointers that helped the Sixers retake the momentum. Niang finished with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting from deep. They went into the fourth quarter down just 99-96.
The Sixers, on the back of Embiid, completely took over the game midway through the fourth quarter. Beginning with 9:09 remaining, the Sixers went on a 20-4 run. Embiid made four consecutive shots during the run. His jumper over Jokic gave the Sixers a 112-110 lead with 5:10 remaining. It was their first lead since the very beginning of the game, and they never looked back.
The game was still close, and the Sixers needed to make a few more plays to seal it. With a 120-117 lead and 1:28 left, Tucker tipped in a Harden miss to make it a 122-117 game. He followed it up by stealing the ball away from Jokic. Embiid iced the game with an amazing step-back 3-pointer with Jokic defending him.
https://t.co/7aRABO9LxZ pic.twitter.com/vcLghi1VHl— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) January 28, 2023
Embiid scored 28 points in the second half alone to power the Sixers to the comeback victory. In a season full of great performances from Embiid, this one stands out as one of the best. This will surely add more fuel to the MVP conversation this season.