Sixers vs. Nuggets: Joel Embiid drops 47 points in Sixers’ seventh straight win

Joel Embiid was by no means second best on Saturday afternoon.

The MVP runner-up of the past two seasons turned in an incredible performance at Wells Fargo Center to lift the Sixers to a 126-119 victory over the Nuggets. The team is 32-16 and has now won seven games in a row.

Embiid recorded 47 points, 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks.

Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic had 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting, nine assists and eight rebounds for Denver, who fell to 34-16.

The Sixers close out their four-game homestand with games against the Magic on Monday and Wednesday. Here are observations from Embiid’s spectacular day and the Sixers’ victory over Denver:

Star big boys called from the jump

One of the most striking aspects of the start of Saturday’s game was, in a literal sense, off the pitch. With the shot clocks above the baskets not working at Wells Fargo Center, teams had to rely on a clock stationed at the corner of the base floor.

Embiid worked fine. He got Jokic to fake his pump on the Sixers’ first possession before scoring an and-one hoop. Embiid posted the Sixers’ first six points and started 4 for 4 from the floor, which was a nice kickback efficiency-wise after his 6-for-18 run in Wednesday’s victory over the Nets.

Oddly, Embiid opened 0 for 3 from the foul line. He had entered the game with 86.1 percent on the season after shooting 20 for 20 in his last two games. After two missed free throws from Embiid, Michael Porter Jr. his second of three threes empty in the first quarter. Jokic then started to understand Embiid’s timing a bit, stripping him off the ball twice when he got up for mid-range jumpers.

The stylistic contrast is fascinating when Embiid and Jokic match. Both are excellent mid-range shooters and skilled, savvy big men, but the two go about it in different ways. Jokic is essentially playing water polo on a basketball court. He effortlessly throws deft and deceitful passes, turning any player he shares the field with into a real threat. The Serbian big man dictates the game in a relaxed way and ruthlessly punishes missteps. Jokic found Bruce Brown on a backdoor cut for a layup late in the first inning, taking advantage of James Harden’s inattention.

Sixers head coach Doc Rivers changed Embiid’s normal rotations in Saturday’s first half, taking him out with six minutes left in the first quarter. Not surprisingly, the Jokic-led Nuggets outscored the Sixers by five points during Montrezl Harrell’s first stint of about two and a half minutes.

On his return, Embiid hit two top-of-the-key threes and at least kept the Nuggets from taking full control of the game. Still, after a quarter that did not include Jokic, Denver had a nine-point lead.

The Sixers can’t shake the defensive woes in the first half

The Sixers encouragingly ate up Denver’s lead with Embiid facing Zeke Nnaji early in the second quarter.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone called a timeout just 17 seconds into the second period on a simple Embiid assist on a Tyrese Maxey three, but the Sixers continued to score freely. Their offensive rebound was a big help; Embiid, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton all converted tip-ins, and the Sixers trailed by just two points.

However, the minutes between Jokic and Harrell were shaky again. Back-to-back Maxey free throw misses also hurt. The Sixers were No. 1 in the NBA in free throw percentage (83.0 percent) after a 35-for-36 game against Brooklyn, but they went 4 for 10 in the first half. Jokic made an open three and then sank a turnaround jumper over Harrell. He attacked the matchup with great comfort.

The Sixers’ defense was also poor when Embiid came back. Jamal Murray lobbed a pass into the transition for the defense and Aaron Gordon jumped to put it in. Denver’s point guard posted seven points in the last 2:13 of the second quarter, including a wide-open three-pointer created by a Sixers miscommunication. Harden also scored five points late in the first half, but the Sixers couldn’t outsmart their woeful defense. They got zero points from starting forwards Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker in the first half on five combined field goal attempts.

The Nuggets put up 73 points in the first half on 65.9 percent shooting, a mark that was (barely) higher than the Nets’ mark in Wednesday’s game.

MVP caliber Embiid afternoon

Rivers put Tucker on Jokic to start the third quarter. It was a reasonable change given the Sixers’ need to disrupt the Nuggets’ offensive rhythm and general ease. Tucker is always up for star assignments, and he tried to play his usual tight, physical on-ball defense against Jokic.

Malone was technically fouled in the third, apparently for claiming that Tucker’s shoulder punches against Jokic should have been a foul. About a minute later, Tucker got his fourth foul for struggling with Jokic off the ball. He informed the officials that he despised the call and was called for a technician of his own. Rivers also received a technical sign during a timeout.

For all that, the Sixers on both sides started the second half well. Jokic sometimes seemed wary of being too aggressive with Embiid’s catches at the spike and helping him make mistakes, so Embiid cleared out a few jumpers. His teammates also played with more energy, and the Sixers trimmed their deficit to 77-73 on an Embiid lay-in following a pick-and-roll with Harden.

Malone called timeout and the Nuggets restored their desired order. Bruce Brown’s three against a Sixers zone possession cut Denver’s lead to 15 points.

The Sixers provided the necessary immediate response. Georges Niang made back-to-back threes, Embiid scored an one-and-one layup and the Nuggets suddenly looked shaky again. Embiid’s intensity and determination not to lose a marquee were also evident. After stealing a Jokic pass on Denver’s last possession in the third quarter, he connected with sophomore guard Bones Hyland and got three free throws. Embiid yelled and clenched his fist before making his foul shots to give the Sixers a 12-0 run to end the third. A tough Maxey-runner early in the fourth inning narrowed the team’s deficit to one run.

The Sixers momentarily lost momentum, going down 106–98 on two free throws from Hyland, but Niang hit a key, quick release three of a sideline out-of-bounds play to beat the shot clock. Harris then stepped up with a driving left layup and a corner three that tied the game at 106 apiece.

At that point, Embiid typed in, “Actually, I am the MVP” mode. He was automatically isolated against Jokic, drilling back-to-back mid-range jumpers and flying a three from the left wing. Embiid canned it in and the “MVP” chants indeed poured from the home fans during Denver’s time-out.

Along the way, both Tucker and Harris made significant defensive contributions. Tucker forced a turnover with solid post defense, while Harris swept a steal on Jokic after a sneak attack at the top of the key. Harris also grabbed a corner three on a clever pass from Embiid. And Tucker picked the perfect time for his lone runs, tipped by a miss from Harden after the Nuggets trimmed the Sixers’ lead to 120-117.

Of course, Embiid had to be the one to label the win. His fourth three of the afternoon lifted the Sixers eight points and was a fitting punctuation for an MVP caliber day.

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