Sixers vs. Nuggets instant breakdown: Philly takes loss in Denver with no Joel Embiid, James Harden

The buzz around one of the most anticipated games of the season died down quickly. The MVP showdown between Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic was canceled when the Philadelphia 76ers (49-26) decided to sit Embiid in their road-trip finalé against the Denver Nuggets (51-24). With James Harden also sidelined, the Sixers made things interesting but lost 116-111.

Let’s break down the Sixers’ loss to the Nuggets.

Sixers player notes:

Tyrese Maxey: 29 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 12-21 FG shooting

With the herculean task of leading the Sixers’ offense as the first option staring him right in the face, Maxey didn’t blink for quite some time. He showed impressive poise on his takes to the hoop, using his quickness and crafty handles/footwork to wiggle into space to get up a shot. Most of his impact came in the second quarter but he did as well as anyone could have hoped for in these tough circumstances.

Tobias Harris: 16 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 6-12 FG shooting

While much of Denver’s defensive attention went to Maxey, Harris took advantage of it. He cut in from the wings to get into the paint for either a runner or post-up look, providing supplemental scoring.

Paul Reed: 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, 7-7 FG shooting

Reed channeled the spirit of Charles Bassey and posted an impressive game against Jokic and the Nuggets with Embiid out. Although he didn’t get the win like Basssey did, his energy, tenacity and perfect shooting kept the undermanned Sixers competitive.

Nuggets player notes:

Nikola Jokic: 25 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists, 2 blocks, 8-11 FG shooting

The Joker picked apart the hospital Sixers and commanded the boards, as expected. He didn’t initially force the issue as a scorer and instead used the gravity created by his immense size advantage to get the ball where it needed to be. Whenever a guard had to match up with him, he wasted no time going right up with the ball. His 14-point third quarter helped bury the Sixers’ hopes of pulling off a miraculous win.

Jamal Murray: 19 points, 4 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, 8-14 FG shooting

Murray was the hot hand for Denver with Jokic in pure playmaker mode. His chemistry with Jokic helped him end plays with his passing and put up points. The Nuggets’ scoring was evenly distributed but his ability to break down the defense and swing the ball around made him a key contributor.

Game recap:

1st half

Dewayne Dedmon got the start in Embiid’s place while De’Anthony Melton remained in the starting group. The veteran big man guarded Jokic to start off. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope guarded Maxey while Aaron Gordon matched up with Harris, who showed some aggression in attacking the hoop early on. His early scoring kept the Sixers in it.

Maxey was the first sub of the night with Shake Milton taking his place but he quickly came back in for Melton. Doc Rivers went to Tucker as the backup center first, playing Georges Niang alongside him. Tucker got physical with Jokic but with Philly being sucked into the paint more to help, Jokic found open teammates. Since Maxey and Melton got off to cold shooting starts, the Sixers quickly fell behind the pace-pushing, ball-moving Nuggets. They made just a third of their first-quarte field-goal attempts.

The Sixers stuck with it and took complete control of the non-Jokic minutes and tied it up as Maxey started heating up ripped through the porous perimeter defense and scored in the paint. Paul Reed and Jalen McDaniels crashed the glass, which led to second-chance points. But the Nuggets also used it against them when they didn’t get the board, quickly running in transition and scoring with the numbers advantage. The Sixers’ affinity for over-helping also did them in numerous possessions.

Even with Jokic back in the game, the Sixers didn’t falter. The offensive game plan of “spread the floor, get Maxey a mismatch and let him cook” was working. Fighting fire with fire was their best bet against a team like the Nuggets. Getting the occasional stop was helpful but this one was about letting their best scorer do his thing while taking care of the ball and securing easy buckets by forcing turnovers when possible. Tucker’s physical defense worked well, even without Embiid lurking behind him to help.

Maxey scored 20 in the second quarter, a career-high for a single quarter, as the Sixers trailed 61-57 at the half.

2nd half

The Sixers got a little loose with the ball and started going away from Maxey to start the half. Those were the last things they could afford in a bucket-for-bucket affair, giving the Nuggets easier chances to score. On one key sequence, Jokic played the game the right way by flailing a half-court shot toward the basket despite his clear intention to pass. He was rewarded with free throws. Remember kids, real MVP candidates don’t grift for fouls. They EARN them with hard-fought plays. (Alright, sarcasm over.)

As the third quarter went on, the Sixers found themselves on the wrong end of an 18-4 run. Their offense went cold and their defense didn’t magically become elite. The Nuggets, in an almost literal sense, started running them out of the gym with up-tempo scoring. The Sixers tried a zone defense with Reed in the middle, which wasn’t all that good. But Mr. Bball made some nice plays. He swished a baseline jumper, turned a steal into an old-fashioned three-point play, scored a layup on Jokic and fought for several offensive boards.

The Nuggets’ huge run kept them comfortably ahead on the scoreboard entering the fourth quarter but the Sixers kept it close enough to threaten a comeback. The deficit hovered around 15 points when Maxey came back in. He and Reed had some nice plays but Denver’s backup-laden unit, armed with the offensive skills of Murray and the athleticism and intensity of Bruce Brown and Christian Braun, carved up Philly’s backup-laden unit and dunked its way to a bigger lead.

The Sixers put up enough of a fight to have Jokic come back into the game with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter. Jaden Springer, Furkan Korkmaz and Montrezl Harrell made their way into the game soon after. The garbage-time squad got it down to six points with just under two minutes left with a 15-2 run. Rivers let them (accompanied by Milton and McDaniels) try to complete the comeback.

A Harrell putback dunk got it down to three. McDaniels seemingly blocked a Jeff Green layup but it was called a foul. Rivers challenged it and the replay showed that Green was clearly out of bounds. Still, the challenge was unsuccessful and Green hit both free throws to put the game away.

Random thoughts:

The very poor timing of Embiid’s spicy interview with The Athletic notwithstanding, he was in between a rock and hard place with this game given his calf issue. Should he have played through it for the sake of potentially making another statement in the MVP race or prioritize his health at the end of a road trip (which he previously said was his biggest focus)? I think the latter is the right move, especially with upcoming matchups against the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. Those are the real matchups where Embiid (and Harden) have to be healthy.

The Sixers will return home and face the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday.

The post Sixers vs. Nuggets instant breakdown: Philly takes loss in Denver with no Joel Embiid, James Harden appeared first on ClutchPoints.

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