Monday night's matchup between two MVP contenders lived up to the hype, but it didn't pan out as the Sixers envisioned.
Joel Embiid's Sixers fell to a 114-110 loss to Nikola Jokic's Nuggets at Wells Fargo Center.
Embiid had 34 points and nine rebounds, while Jokic posted 22 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
“We lost," Embiid said. “Thats what I care about; I care about the wins. It’s up to you guys to have this conversation to decide who’s the best or who had the best game and all that stuff. I don’t really care about that. I just want to win. Obviously we’re thinking about championships and at this point, we’ve got to be better.
“And as far as individual awards, he’s (won) MVP and he’s been a monster all season. You guys can also build a case for me, but that’s not my focus. I’m focused on how we can get better every single day, and we’ve got a lot to work on.”
James Harden notched 24 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. Matisse Thybulle tied his career high with six steals.
The 41-26 Sixers will play the Cavs on Wednesday night in Cleveland. Here are observations on their loss to Denver:
Long-awaited matchup an entertaining one
Unsurprisingly, Embiid was attack-minded from the opening tip in his first game against Jokic since December of 2019.
On the Sixers’ second possession, he beat Jokic with a pump fake followed by a driving dunk. The next time down, he made a three-pointer off of a pick-and-pop with Tyrese Maxey. Embiid sunk two threes before the Nuggets had any. While Denver began 0 for 8 from long range, an Embiid jumper put the Sixers ahead 27-14, fired up the home fans, and inspired Harden to give the big man a firm, celebratory shove.
No NBA game is ever a true one-on-one duel, and that reality had a major impact Monday. DeAndre Jordan’s minutes against Jokic were seriously unsteady. Jordan did block Jokic in the second quarter, but he allowed the four-time All-Star to hit a wide-open three on the Nuggets’ next possession. Jordan (three points on 1-for-6 shooting, six rebounds) also failed to convert several relatively routine short-range shots.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers' assessment of Jordan through his first four appearances with the team could be classified as generous.
“He’s been great overall," Rivers said. “I thought today he struggled a little bit but still, he’s the one roller on our team. He gets downhill. He sprints the floor, and that’s so important for our team. So he’s been really good. He’s really bought in to what we’re trying to do.”
With Embiid on the bench, Denver cut a deficit as high as 19 points down to five at halftime. The standout play from the Nuggets’ run was a nifty, in-stride pass from Jokic to Jeff Green for a dunk.
Denver kept rolling to start the second half, tying the game at 61-all on a Jokic layup and taking the lead on another Green slam. Embiid got good looks on the short roll, but he missed three mid-range jumpers and it was valid to wonder whether the Sixers were worn out from Sunday night’s overtime win in Orlando. But, to Embiid and the Sixers’ credit, they didn’t panic or deviate from what was producing high-quality shots. Embiid made three key jumpers and the Sixers held an eight-point lead when he rested late in the third period.
He acknowledged the back-to-back situation was “tough" but said he didn't consider a night off. According to Rivers, Embiid asked to be substituted out during his first stint.
“I thought the rotations got screwed up today because Joel after four minutes said he wanted to come out," Rivers said. “He was tired. And then he got in foul trouble after that, so that really hurt our rotations tonight.”
A blatant missed travel by Jokic cost them two points, but the Sixers managed fine without Embiid in the second half thanks to productive isolation play from Harden and led by seven points entering the fourth. The Sixers couldn't capitalize on Jokic's rest, though. DeMarcus Cousins sunk two threes, knotting the score at 92 apiece, and Denver went up 94-92 on a Bryn Forbes layup.
Both Jokic and Embiid converted absurd, off-balance shots late in the fourth. Jokic gave the Nuggets a 112-108 edge with an unbelievable flip at the hoop that somehow dropped. Not that Monday night was necessary to prove it, but he's a sensational, MVP-caliber player, and so is Embiid.
Thybulle the ultimate X-factor
Matisse Thybulle made quite a few positive offensive plays in the early going, a significant development given the Sixers’ continued efforts to force defenses to respect his presence, the team’s recent run of poor starts, and the fact that the 25-year-old played little down the stretch Sunday.
In addition to slamming home two dunks, Thybulle tapped out an offensive rebound, assisted a transition Tobias Harris three-pointer, and drained a corner three of his own. He finished the first quarter with nine points on 4-for-4 shooting, four steals, two assists, two rebounds and a block.
While much of his success was instinctive, not a byproduct of structured actions, any flickers of Thybulle and the Sixers figuring things out offensively matters in the big picture. If he helps in the playoffs with the occasional put-back layup, fast-break dunk and catch-and-shoot three, that’s great for the Sixers. He doesn’t need to be brilliant offensively to justify a starting spot and heavy minutes.
Thybulle blocked Jokic in the second quarter when he recognized Shake Milton’s predicament on a switch and freelanced for one of his regular defensive highlights. But on Denver’s next possession, he committed a momentum-halting foul on rookie Bones Hyland behind the arc. In the third quarter, Thybulle notched his fifth steal with a hard-charging, sneaky double team on an unsuspecting Jokic.
Picking “X-factors” is a popular exercise ahead of the postseason. We think it’s safe to lock in Thybulle as an important one for the Sixers.
Thybulle played 26 minutes and Georges Niang got 25 on a 2-for-12 shooting night.
What's relevant for Rivers in determining how and when to use Thybulle?
“Well, the No. 1 thing is he has to be dynamic defensively every night," Rivers said, “because if he isn’t, then it’s hard to play him, right? It’s the same thing with an offensive player. I had Lou Williams. If Lou Williams didn’t score, why would I have him on the floor? So just look at that in reverse. And when Matisse is really effective defensively, even if they’re helping off of him, I think he gives us enough that we can still be good.”
Bones and the benches decide game
For the most part, Harden made sound decisions against Denver's aggressive pick-and-roll defense. He found Embiid in promising areas on the short roll and took what the Nuggets gave him.
It sure seems the Sixers will need Harden to be great in the postseason when Embiid sits. He stepped up late in the third quarter as the 32-year-old blocked a Hyland three, drained a step-back jumper and drew frequent fouls.
Tyrese Maxey (19 points on 7-for-13 shooting, three assists, no turnovers) didn't look like a full-blown third star, but he was better than in the Sixers' past two games at decisively picking his spots. Among his best plays were a strong baseline drive and dunk and a pull-up jumper to tie the game at 103-all. Maxey's demonstrated again and again that he's a fast learner, and he's figuring out works for him next to another star.
Hyland outshined the Sixers' backcourt during a game-turning stretch in the fourth quarter, though. The Wilmington, Delaware native made three triples that lifted the Nuggets to a 103-97 lead and soaked in every second of the big-game experience.
“Pick-and-roll," Harden said. “He made a deep one. We lost him one time. I think he hit three or four threes in that fourth quarter, some big-time shots from the young’un. He’s been playing aggressive and he’s been big for them the entire year. For us, a couple of them we could’ve controlled but a couple of them were deep. Just got to watch film, get better and keep pushing.”
Hyland scored 21 of the Nuggets' 48 bench points, while the Sixers' second unit shot a collective 4 for 24 and totaled 14 points.
Danny Green was back Monday after sitting out two games with a left middle finger laceration and missed all five of his field goal attempts. Isaiah Joe did not appear in the Sixers' nine-player rotation.