DENVER - Sitting at his locker some 30 minutes following Friday's game, Nerlens Noel revealed the inspiration behind the 76ers' joyous mood.
One night after crumbling in the fourth quarter, the Sixers made plays down the stretch in a 124-122 victory over the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.
"I think that's a credit to coach [Brett] Brown," Noel said. "He made a big point to focus in the fourth quarter and be able to close out a game on both sides of the floor. I think we definitely responded to that tonight."
The Sixers (8-24) maintained their focus, got good shots, secured the ball, and made clutch defensive stops just like Brown challenged them to do during Friday morning's team meeting.
That's when the team watched game film of Thursday's 100-83 setback in Utah to the Jazz. The Sixers took a 74-70 lead into the fourth quarter of that game. However, the Jazz blew it wide open with a 21-2 run at the start of the final quarter.
"We talked about [Monday's loss at] Sacramento and [Dec. 23's loss at] Phoenix," said Brown, whose squad took a lead into the fourth quarter in all four games of the West Coast road trip. "And to see the guys have zero turnovers in the fourth quarter and execute stuff down the stretch [is a good feeling.]"
Joel Embiid took over against the Nuggets with 31.5 seconds left before fouling out with 3.0 seconds left. With the score tied at 117, the 7-foot-2, 275-pounder scored five of the Sixers' final seven points from the foul line and had key block. Embiid's final foul shots gave the Sixers a 124-120 cushion with 4.6 seconds left.
The rookie finished with 23 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals, three blocks, and five turnovers. He made 12 of 14 foul shots.
"I always have thought that I'm clutch," Embiid said, "And I stepped to the line and made my free throws."
While he was clutch down the stretch, Ersan Ilyasova carried the team through three quarters. That's when the power forward scored all 23 of his points and grabbed 10 of his game-high 13 rebounds. Ilyasova made of 5 of 6 three-pointers. His lone miss came in the fourth. This game marked his second consecutive double-double and seventh of the season.
Meanwhile, T.J. McConnell scored 13 of his season-high 17 points in the fourth quarter. The point guard also finished with a game-high eight assists to go with two turnovers in 35 minutes, 54 seconds. He attempted - and made - all three of his three-pointers in the fourth quarter. His last one gave the Sixers a 117-113 lead with 1:22 left.
"He wasn't afraid to shoot," Brown said. "People bait him to shoot by going under pick and rolls and leave him no matter where he is and go after Joel Embiid for double team."
McConnell made the Nuggets (14-19) regret that decision on Friday.
"It finally feels good to see the threes fall in," said McConnell, who shot 18.8 percent from that distance entering the game. "I know I'm a capable shooter. I just got off to a rough start. I just have to have confidence in it and keep shooting."
McConnell started in place of Sergio Rodriguez, who was sidelined with a left-ankle sprain.
Even though they played well, the game still wasn't decided until the final second.
With his team down four points, Nikola Jokic went to the foul line to attempt three shots with 3.0 seconds left. He made the first two and missed the third on purpose. Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris grabbed the offensive rebound and missed a jumper with 0.9 seconds left. Noel came up with the defensive rebound and heaved the ball into the air as time expired.