Pardon the cliché, but this matchup was literally a long time in the making.
The 76ers’ matchup Monday against the Denver Nuggets marked the first time Joel Embiid had faced Nikola Jokić since Dec. 10, 2019. Embiid missed the teams’ next three meetings because of back tightness, a deep bone bruise in his left knee, and COVID-19, respectively.
He was healthy this time, but that still didn’t stop the Sixers from suffering a 114-110 loss at the Wells Fargo Center. Embiid did his part, finishing with a game-high 34 points to go with nine rebounds, four assists, and two blocks. He did, however, have five turnovers.
Yet poor bench play doomed the Sixers. Their reserves combined to shoot just 4-for-24. Sixers reserves DeAndre Jordan (minus-5), Georges Niang (minus-19), Danny Green (minus-8) and Shake Milton (minus-11) were combined minus-43.
But one has to say that Embiid got the edge over Jokić for the MVP front-runner and league’s best center.
Jokić, the reigning MVP and a strong contender to repeat, finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, two steals, and two blocks. The four-time All-Star had his shot blocked twice. The first time by Matisse Thybulle and the second time by Jordan.
He also turned the ball over five times. One of those turnovers came on a first-quarter steal by Embiid.
This was a “regular-season game, Denver against the Sixers,” said Embiid, downplaying the head-to-head competition. “We had a good start. That end of the first half was terrible for us. But it wasn’t about me or anybody else. It was about [the Sixers] doing everything possible to try to get the win.”
But the Sixers dropped to 41-26 and are 4-2 all-time in games against the Nuggets (41-28), featuring Embiid and Jokić. The Sixers blew a 19-point, second-quarter lead in this loss.
And considering the MVP implications, this was a huge contest for the game’s best two centers no matter who much Embiid downplayed the contest. Just don’t tell that to the teams’ coaches. During the pregame press conference, Denver coach Michael Malone stressed his squad’s focus was on getting a victory. The Sixers’ Doc Rivers felt the same way.
“I’m a coach — I’m not worried about a matchup or anything like that,” Rivers said. “I’m trying to win a game. We’re going to need Joel to be great tonight, as he’s been all year. I’m sure they’re going to want Jokić to be the same way.
“I don’t really get caught up in that as much as if I was coming to a game and watching it. It’s a little different for me.”
On this night, James Harden added 24 points, a game-high 11 assists, and nine rebounds. The Sixers point guard made 6-of-11 shots. However, he only took two shots in the fourth quarter due to the Nuggets trapping him. This comes after he shot 8-for-36 in the previous two games.
A Sixers fan was ejected from the arena after getting into a verbal altercation with JaMychal Green. The altercation occurred after Harden and DeMarcus Cousins had to be separated and both received technical fouls with 7 minutes, 4 seconds left. The players were in each other’s face after Cousins fouled Harden.
Down to the wire
Harden made a pair of foul shots to give the Sixers a 108-107 lead with 2:15 left. However, Wilmington native Bones Hyland drained a three-pointer on the ensuing possession to put the Nuggets up 110-108. After Embiid a layup, Jokić scored on a 5-footer to make it a 112-108 game with 1:32 to play.
Tyrese Maxey pulled the Sixers within two points (112-110) on a layup with 17.8 seconds left. The Sixers intentionally fouled Will Barton, who split a pair of foul shots with 14.4 seconds remaining. Down three, the Sixers had a chance to knot the score. But Georges Niang’s three-point attempt hit off the side of the backboard. He got the rebound and missed the layup before fouling Jokić.
Jokic split a pair of free throws in the closing seconds, and the Nuggets escaped with a 114-110 win.
Bones’ big game
Hyland was a problem for his hometown team. The rookie was on fire in the fourth quarter, scoring 12 points while making four of five three-pointers. He finished with 21 points.
As much as the coaches wanted to downplay it, this was marquee center matchup of the season. It was a matchup with a lot of hype. And Embiid lived up to it, early on.
He missed his first shot attempt, a 6-foot jumper, and had his second attempt (a 5-footer) blocked by Jokić.
But he got things rolling on his third attempt.
That’s when he pump-faked Jokić, forcing the Nugget to leave his feet. That led to Embiid driving the lane and delivering a dunk. Then after Jokić scored at the other end, Embiid buried a three over the big fella to score the Sixers’ first five points. Then at the 4:51 mark of the quarter, Embiid scored a step-back three-pointer with Jokić guarding him. That gave the Sixers a 27-14 lead and forced Malone to call a timeout. The sellout crowd chanted “MVP, MVP, MVP” as the players walked to their respective benches. Embiid was subbed out during that timeout.
He had 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting, including making both three-pointers, at the point. Embiid ended up with 12 first-quarter points.
Dynamic third quarter for duo
Rivers said before the game that he wanted Harden to be more aggressive and be less of a passer.
Well, the Nuggets kept double-teaming him in the first half, leading to easy looks for Embiid. But looked for his own shot in the third quarter, leading to Harden and Embiid dominating the quarter.
Harden kept getting fouled while driving the lane, leading to his making 7-of-8 free throws. He also went 2-for-2 from the field to score 12 points while playing the entire third quarter. Embiid scored 13 points in the quarter on 4-for-8 shooting and making all four of his foul shots.
Transition defense woes
The Sixers weren’t happy with their transition defense. And with just cause. The Nuggets had a 29-11 edge in fast break points.
“Their transition game just crushed us tonight,” Rivers said. “That’s been one of our weaknesses. That’s what’s disappointing. [Sunday] night first half, I think Orlando had 32 points in transition or whatever. I think that created a lot of their baskets tonight. That’s something we just have to get better at doing.”