The Sixers vs. Nuggets matchup was bigger than two top teams in their conference, launching a 3–game ABC lineup on a Saturday.
It was about two men- one from Serbia, the other from Cameroon. Joel Embiid had the chance to show a national audience why he should be the top NBA MVP candidate against Denver’s Nikola Jokic. The fans at the Wells Fargo Center already hyped up for an NFC Championship game, went home with a jolt of elation because of the end result. However, things got off to a rocky start.
Sixers rocky first half
In the first half, it seemed like the Sixers’ stars were the only players for Philly who were ready to play in this big matchup. Joel Embiid (19) and James Harden (14) were the only 76ers in double digits after two quarters. Embiid’s rebounds and Harden’s assists kept the team as close as it could while the bench players struggled to find a rhythm. On the other side, Denver had no problems getting into a groove.
From the beginning, Mike Malone’s team was scorching the basketball net in the Wells Fargo Center. They made 50 percent of their 3-pointers on 10-for-20 shooting. Nikola Jokic, who did have a typically productive night overall (24/8/9), dished out five dimes and had 16 points by halftime. There were three other Nuggets in double figures after two quarters, punishing the Sixers in every way.
Whether it was fast breaks or half-court sets, the Nuggets moved the ball with purpose and efficiency. Jamal Murray, who ended up with 22 points, gave the Sixers’ guards a difficult time as they could not thwart his drives or disrupt his play-making. As if defensive problems were not enough for Philly, the 76ers shot 40 percent from the free-throw line (4-10), which is quite uncharacteristic for them.
To make matters worse, frustrations led to a spat between two Sixers players during a timeout. Shake Milton and Georges Niang engaged in an argument over a 2-on-1 fast break that was not executed properly.
Sixers turn it around
The second half would need a big turnaround, and it happened right out of the gate.
Down 73-58, the Sixers came out more aggressive and climbed back in quickly. They cut the lead to single digits and forced the Nuggets to call a timeout. What changed?
Georges Niang and Tobias Harris stepped their game up, contributing 12 points in the third quarter. Of course, Joel Embiid was still cooking, putting up 16 points between halftime and the final period.
Although Tyrese Maxey had a subpar game, scoring only 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting, James Harden kept pushing the pace. He got his teammates easy shots without making a single turnover the entire game. Defensively, the Sixers put Matisse Thybulle on Jamal Murray, shadowing the shifty guard all over the court. Thybulle ended up with three steals, tying Embiid for a team-high.
When the Sixers finally took the lead at the 5:18 mark of the fourth quarter, it was because Joel Embiid refused to let his team lose. While Jokic struggled from the field, committing three turnovers in the process, Embiid was knocking down shots, seemingly from every spot on the floor. He raised up for jumpers, nailed 3-pointers, and rattled home dunks; Almost everyone was in the face of the man that stands between him and the MVP trophy.
Ironically, some of the biggest plays from a Sixer not named Embiid came from P.J. Tucker. The much-maligned forward had a huge tip-in layup and a key steal against Jokic in crunch time. Tucker defended the two-time MVP as he was expected to, given his reputation as a solid defender versus centers.
In the end, with every fan standing on their feet, Joel Embiid received justified applause due to his MVP performance. On this night, he gave the Wells Fargo crowd a show to remember, and most likely, one that he, himself, will never forget.
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Derik Hamilton