Fultz returns, Sixers stomp Nuggets for 7th straight win

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By Josh Liddick, Sports Talk Philly editor 

It was one big game for the Philadelphia 76ers (43-30) on Monday night, not only because they clinched their first playoff spot since 2012, but also for the much anticipated return of No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz.

They ended up cruising to a 123-104 home win over the Denver Nuggets (40-34) for their seventh straight victory.

It felt like the first half of the game was filled with so much hype that the focus was off of the task at hand, improving playoff seeding.

The Nuggets were also fighting to stay alive in the Western Conference, currently sitting at the ninth seed.

So with all things considered for the Nuggets, they really took off and dominated most of the first half against the Sixers.

It was a combination threat of Will Barton and Jamal Murray that really took over the game in the first half. They both posted strong showings, especially Barton with a quick 20 points that exploited the Sixers' defense.

It all changed in the second half. The Sixers absolutely throttled the Nuggets in quarters three and four, ramping up their offensive prowess to the very next level.

The Sixers outscored Denver 72-45 in the second half, the most points scored by the team in the second half all season long.

For the Sixers, the offense stepped up, but were led by the usual suspects, especially in Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and JJ Redick. Four of the Sixers' five starters finished in double-figures. Embiid and Saric both had 20 points, Redick had 19, while Covington added 18 points to the fold.

Along with his 20 points, came 13 rebounds for Embiid, another solid performance for the 24-year-old All-Star.

While Ben Simmons only managed to score seven points, he made up for his lack of scoring in rebounds and passing. Simmons finished with 13 rebounds and 11 assists, leaving him just three points short of his 11th triple-double of the season, fourth in seven games.

The Sixers' bench really played out of their element, and you could definitely tell the kind of impact Markelle Fultz will bring to the bench going forward and how important of a role he has on a second and third unit that has struggled so much all season long.

Three bench players had double digits in scoring. Ersan Ilyasova had 11 points on 5-of-8 from the field. Marco Belinelli was also 5-of-8 from the field for 11 points, while Fultz contributed a strong statline in just 14 minutes of action. 10 points, eight assists, and four rebounds for the rookie out of Washington.

Fultz was the highlight of the game, and not just for his triumphant return to the court for the first time since October. His quality of play and intensity on the second and third runs in just his fifth career NBA game was ultra-impressive. His performance showcased how ready he is to take his game to the next level and he showed just how much he will be able to contribute to this team in the playoffs.

With nine games left in the regular season, it's a mystery what kind of role Head Coach Brett Brown forsees Fultz getting into especially when it comes time to figuring out the rotation for the playoffs. Right now, Fultz will most likely continue to get minutes behind Ben Simmons, eventually ramping up his playing time for the remainder of the year.

Whatever happens next, Fultz surely showed what everyone has missed for so long and how it might just be a waste of time to truly worry about the future of the 19-year-old, because in just those 14 minutes, there were a lot more positive takeaways than negative ones.

The Nuggets struggled in the second half, and just couldn't cut the Sixers' deficit as the game started to wrap up late.

Will Barton finished with 25 points, Jamal Murray added 17, and Paul Millsap had 16 points for Denver. 

The Sixers shot 13-of-29 (44.8%) from beyond-the-arc. They shot over 50 percent from the field for the game. Redick and Covington each had four 3-pointers apiece. The Sixers outrebounded the Nuggets substantially, 54-37.

Overall, the Sixers were the better team, especially at home, getting their seventh straight win, now needing to go only 7-2 in the final nine games to reach 50 wins on the season. The Sixers continue to inch closer to the Cavaliers, currently occupying the third seed in the Eastern Conference, leading the Sixers by just a game.

The Sixers next test will be against the New York Knicks at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.

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