DENVER — When asked during his pregame media session if facing a shorthanded 76ers team on a five-game losing skid was the type of contest that most scared him, Nuggets coach Michael Malone did not mince words.
“Yes,” Malone said. " … That’s when you get your [butt] kicked.”
The scenario Malone feared unfolded Thursday night at Ball Arena — even before the Nuggets’ coach ran onto the floor and was ejected midway through the third quarter. And for the Sixers, it was a much-needed road victory as they continued to play without star Joel Embiid and defensive dynamo Matisse Thybulle (both in Covid-19 health and safety protocols).
Philly built a big first-half lead, locked down reigning NBA MVP Nikola Jokic (30 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) after a fabulous start and then created more distance after the break to blast the Nuggets on their home floor, 103-89, and get their first win on this season-long six-game road trip.
Seth Curry broke out of his recent struggles to finish with 20 points, six rebounds, and five assists. Tobias Harris (17 points, seven rebounds) started 3 of 10, but then provided key buckets in the second half to help Philly extend its lead to as many as 22 points and answer any mini-runs by Denver. Six players finished in double figures, including a surprising 12 points and seven rebounds from backup rookie center Charles Bassey. A Philly defense that entered Denver struggling mightily without All-NBA defenders Embiid and Thybulle held the Nuggets to 36% shooting.
Thursday’s win marked the midway point of this road trip. The Sixers (9-7) next play Portland on Saturday before wrapping up against Sacramento on Monday and Golden State on Wednesday.
Stifling the Joker
About 90 minutes before tip-off, Sixers coach Doc Rivers made these quips about Jokic:
“I mistakenly called him a kid last year or something like that. That [ticked] him off,” Rivers said. “I’ve called him a guy who looks like he’s at a bar, and that [ticked] him off. So I’m gonna go the other way and just compliment him.”
And in the first half, Jokic looked like the reigning MVP, scoring 27 of his 30 points on 10-of-12 shooting and adding six rebounds and five assists. But after the break, the Sixers’ defense turned stifling against the uber-skilled 7-footer.
Jokic scored just three points in the second half on 0-of-5 shooting. Harris credited his team with increasing their physicality against Jokic and being more cognizant of teammates cutting around him for assist opportunities.
“Just really [packed] it in a little bit on the weak side, so he wasn’t able to pick us apart,” Harris said.
Rivers also credited a more efficient offensive night — often while deliberately attacking Jokic — with aiding the Sixers’ defensive performance.
Philly deployed an inside-out game plan for the Nuggets’ aggressive scheme against the pick and roll, utilizing skip passes to the corner for second drives. That strategy worked against a Denver defense that ranks third in the NBA in efficiency, allowing 103 points per 100 possessions.
“With Jokic so far up, we wanted to involve him as much as possible [in actions],” Rivers said. “Just try to wear him down as much as you could . ... I thought we got guys in the right spot all night [and] made plays for each other. We got back to playing the way we can play together.”
In the first half, Jokic carved up Andre Drummond, making six of his first seven shots in the opening quarter and then spearheading a rally to close the Sixers’ lead to single digits as soon as Drummond returned. Jokic’s stretch included two three-pointers, a nifty dish to Aaron Gordon underneath and an and-1 finish on which Drummond committed the foul.
Maxey’s first, Bassey’s second
Two of the Sixers’ youngest players paced Thursday’s victory. Second-year point guard Tyrese Maxey’s impact has been steady all season, but Bassey has rarely been part of the rotation even during Embiid’s absence.
Maxey scored 11 of his team-high 22 points in the first quarter to keep the Sixers competitive before their second-quarter explosion. His three-pointer capped a 12-4 run that gave Philly a 16-15 lead at the 5-minute, 1-second mark, and he hit another go-ahead jumper with less than three minutes to play in the period.
Then, Bassey was a major factor on both ends of the floor as Philly built a 17-point advantage in the second. He grabbed an offensive board that led to a Curry three-pointer. He drew an offensive foul on one end, then immediately converted an and-1 finish at the other that ignited the bench. He blocked Will Barton from behind, and got a hand on one of Jokic’s high-release jumpers. He went 3 of 3 from the floor in his first-half spurt, including a tip-in and an alley-oop layup.
“His spark out there really pushed us over the top tonight,” Harris said of Bassey. “He’s a heck of a player, and he showed it tonight.”
Bassey’s performance was an emphatic follow-up to an under-the-radar performance in Utah that drew praise from Rivers, particularly when it came to his knowledge of defensive coverages.
Curry was also terrific late in the second to help keep the Sixers in front. He scored 12 points in the period, the sixth time he has notched double figures in a quarter this season to lead the team.
Another new starting lineup
As the Sixers continue to search for short-term answers without Embiid, Thybulle, and starting wing Danny Green, Rivers inserted Georges Niang into the starting lineup alongside Maxey, Curry, Harris, and Drummond, who grabbed his 9,000th career rebound in the game.
Niang finished with a balanced line of 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting, five rebounds, and three assists while playing with both units.
“We just needed size,” Rivers said of the decision to start Niang. “They’re a big team, man, golly.”
Furkan Korkmaz (five points, four rebounds, three assists) was the first Sixer off the bench, followed by Shake Milton (12 points, five rebounds, and four assists) and Bassey. Second-year guard Isaiah Joe did not play until the game was out of reach.
The Sixers finished with 29 bench points, compared to 20 for the Nuggets.