Instant Observations: Embiid Leads Sixers to Statement Win Over Defending Champion Nuggets

Instant Observations: Embiid Leads Sixers to Statement Win Over Defending Champion Nuggets Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes were on Philadelphia on Tuesday night. The Philadelphia 76ers (26-13) were taking on the defending champion Denver Nuggets (28-14). Two of the league’s best players, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, were facing off against each other. The game did not disappoint.

Embiid scored 41 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out 10 assists in the Sixers’ 126-121 win over the Nuggets. Tyrese Maxey finished with 25 points, five rebounds, nine assists and two steals. Tobias Harris added in 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting.

The Sixers were without De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine stress response), Robert Covington (left knee inflammation), Danuel House Jr. (lumbar spine contusion) and Jaden Springer (right ankle tendinitis). The team announced prior to the game Melton, who missed four of the last six games, will remain out for at least the next three games before getting re-evaluated.

Jokic led the Nuggets with 25 points, 20 rebounds and three assists. Michael Porter Jr. added in 20 points and five rebounds. The Nuggets played without Julian Strawther due to a right knee contusion/sprain.

The Sixers have a few days off before next taking on the Orlando Magic on Friday. Here are some instant observations from the win over the Nuggets:

Embiid dominates Denver’s defense

One of the things Embiid has improved on the most from prior seasons is his ability both as a passer and reading the floor. His improvement in that area shined against the Nuggets. The Sixers ran their offense through Embiid, with a lot of their possessions beginning with Embiid having the ball around the free-throw line. Embiid continued to be lethal from that part of the floor, either calmly knocking down mid-range jumpers or finding the open man when Denver threw double teams at him. He racked up a plethora of assists, efficiently swinging the ball and routinely finding the open man. Embiid racked up a double-double with points and assists midway through the third quarter.

Embiid was nearly unstoppable offensively against the Nuggets. It was clear from the opening minutes Embiid was in rhythm as a shooter. He drilled multiple jumpers in the first quarter, setting an early tone by scoring 14 points in the opening quarter. Embiid’s combination of strength and shooting touch is nearly unstoppable, especially when he is also on fire as a passer. Denver had no effective answer to slow him down.

When Embiid came back into the game with 7:28 remaining in action, the game was tied at 111. He completely took over the game, helping the Sixers to pull away. He caught Aaron Gordon with his hand in the cookie jar, draining an and-one mid-range jumper. On the following possession, he knocked down a 3-pointer over Jokic’s outstretched arm that sent the Philadelphia crowd into a frenzy.

Embiid added another feather to his cap in a season full of incredible offensive performances. This game was truly a special one to watch.

Sixers’ defensive struggles

The Sixers’ defensive strategy against Jokic consisted mostly of playing a smaller defender (mainly Harris) on him in addition to pressuring him along the length of the court. This allowed Embiid to roam around the rim defensively, a strategy that has worked in the past against Denver and other teams. However, their defensive game plan against the Nuggets quickly unraveled. There were a ton of missed rotations, leading to open looks Denver’s perimeter players cashed in on with ease.

While Embiid is usually among the best interior defenders in the league, he got destroyed defensively for much of this contest. Playing away from Jokic, he lost track of Gordon multiple times, giving up a pair of easy baskets. Embiid at times seemed indecisive between helping double Jokic in the post and continuing to roam around the rim. Jokic gradually heated up as a scorer in the second half, taking advantage of easy mismatches in the post. While the let Embiid roam strategy was successful in the past, it was surprising to see head coach Nick Nurse not adjust away from that as the game wore on. For as good of a night as Embiid had offensively, he was uncharacteristically poor on the other end of the floor.

The overarching thing that kept Denver in this game was their massive advantage on the glass. The Sixers were brutalized in that area, losing the rebounding battle 46-32. Their struggles, particularly on the defensive glass, were difficult to watch. The Nuggets finished with a resounding 16-5 edge on the offensive glass. Jokic, in particular, dominated in that aspect, grabbing 11 offensive rebounds and generating countless extra possessions. The Nuggets scored 22 second-chance points, which played a large role in keeping the game tight throughout. The Sixers were fortunate to survive getting demolished this badly on the glass.

Maxey’s hot shooting

A lot of the Sixers’ early offense came either through Embiid’s dominance or the effective Embiid-Maxey two-man game. The Nuggets’ defensive attention was all on slowing down Embiid, and Maxey took advantage. The Sixers ran the pick-and-roll between Embiid and Maxey multiple times early in the game, resulting in easy open looks for the 23-year-old guard. After multiple Maxey 3-pointers, he then switched it up and utilized his speed driving to the basket. He was also efficient as a passer, effectively making the right plays and pushing the ball in transition whenever possible.

Harris’ stellar fourth quarter run

For much of this game, it did not feel like Harris was making much of an impact for the Sixers. However, he wound up having an incredibly efficient night scoring the basketball. His run to begin the fourth quarter was crucial to keeping the Sixers in the game. Harris scored the team’s first eight points of the final quarter. He punished mismatches in the post, knocking down one jumper after another. Without his hot stretch to begin the fourth, the game could possibly have slipped out of hand. Harris has been excellent in recent games, a stretch that continued against Denver.

Batum, the prototypical winning player

His numbers on the box score might not stand out, but Nic Batum always manages to make a few key plays every game. He finished this game with eight points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocks. His biggest play of the game came in the final minutes when he blocked a Jamal Murray layup attempt.

Batum’s block snuffed any chance of Denver making a run in the final minute of the game. It was just the latest example of the type of winning plays he makes nearly every contest.

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