What we learned about the Sixers in their statement win over the Nuggets

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Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid, center, tries to hang onto the ball against Brooklyn Nets’ Kyrie Irving, left, and Ben Simmons during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

As part of the NBA’s new vaunted rivalry week, Joel Embiid and the Sixers may have headlined the entire event when they took on the Denver Nuggets and Embiid’s most direct positional rival in Nikola Jokic.

While the two players themselves have no apparent animosity towards each other — with the Joker going so far as to publicly say that Embiid should absolutely have been named an All-Star starter — last year’s MVP race and NBA media has positioned these two unstoppable behemoths in an ever-waging war, one that likely won’t have a declarative victor until one of them reaches the pinnacle and catches the ever-elusive Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.

On Saturday, January 28, though, there were two winners. The Sixers defeated the Nuggets in a statement win, coming back from a 15-point halftime deficit to topple Denver, 126-119. The more important battle in many people’s eyes, though, went to Embiid, who thoroughly outplayed his counterpart. The Cameroonian giant has been inching up the MVP ladder for the past couple of months and may have just submitted an inarguable bid for the top spot, putting up an efficient 47 points on 18-31 shooting to go along with a massive 18 rebounds while in part holding Jokic to just 24 points, eight rebounds, and nine assists.

P.J. Tucker has arrived

While Embiid did a fantastic job defending Joker, and making him move his feet on the other end of the court, he didn’t have to do it alone. Credit where credit is due, Head Coach Doc Rivers changed the tides of the game when he pulled Embiid off of Jokic and instead, stuck P.J. Tucker on the two-time MVP.

A famously stout post defender, Tucker was able to stand up to the Joker in the post while displaying his quick feet as he shadowed his man at the top of the key and around the perimeter. But the most important part of Coach Rivers’s adjustment was that it allowed Embiid to focus his energy into what he does best: roaming the paint to wall off driving lanes and passing angles and challenge shots at the rim.

Jokic’s all-around game and his preferred style of play is so effective, because it often neutralizes the opponent’s paint protector and best defender. His 3-point shooting along with his ball-handling and playmaking draws opposing centers out of the paint, neutralizing their shot-blocking, leaving the lane wide-open for cutters and slashers to work off of the Joker’s patented orchestration.

Due to Tucker’s unnatural ability to aptly guard all five positions, including even throwback back-to-the-basket big men, the Sixers were able to relieve Embiid of that duty, allowing him to reserve his energy for offense while also protecting the paint for Philadelphia.

Looking ahead for the Sixers

This should be a strategy that the Sixers and Coach Rivers deploy more often. This will enable P.J. Tucker to thrive as an always active on-ball defender and allow Embiid to hold down the backline. This will be an important wrinkle for Philadelphia to have in their back pocket should they see matchups against other floor spacing centers in the playoffs such as Bam Adebayo, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, and Al Horford.

AP Photo/Matt Slocum