3 observations after Nuggets ride very hot start to win over Sixers


To have a winning six-game road trip, the Sixers will need to beat the Cavaliers on Thursday for the first time this season. 

The Nuggets scored 44 points in the first period Tuesday night at Ball Arena, then cruised to a 104-95 victory that dropped the Sixers to 32-15, 13-11 away from home.

“We just did not perform well," head coach Doc Rivers said. “Not a lot of excuses; we just didn’t. There’s so many areas where we were bad. For me to try to point out one would be unfair to the other bad areas. We just had an awful game. We haven’t had many of those, but tonight was one of them.”

Michael Porter Jr. (27 points, 12 rebounds), Jamal Murray (30 points) and Nikola Jokic (21 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) were Nuggets standouts. 

For the Sixers, Tobias Harris had 12 points on 6-for-13 shooting. Ben Simmons recorded 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting, two rebounds, three assists and three turnovers. 

Here are three observations on the Sixers' loss in Denver:

Howard starts, and Sixers start badly 

Dwight Howard started for the first time since January and posted six of the Sixers’ opening eight points. He slammed in two lobs off of pick-and-rolls and drew a foul when he soared high for an attempted dunk over Aaron Gordon. 

Besides Howard’s scoring, though, hardly anything went right for the Sixers early. Denver took a 28-12 lead on a Murray lefty layup. The Nuggets were sharp offensively, with Porter especially successful against Danny Green, and the Sixers helped them out with four turnovers that turned into six Denver points.

“Give them credit, they made some tough shots," Harris said. “Also, they had easy looks. I thought we turned the ball over a little bit too much, especially in the first quarter, to have them get out in transition. They had too many points in transition in the first half. But defensively, they just didn’t feel us all night. We can call it whatever we want to call it — being tired, whatever it is. At the end of the day, it’s not who we are and we’ve got to change that. We paid for it tonight, for sure.”

Though Matisse Thybulle made two first-quarter three-pointers, the Sixers’ substitutes did not turn the tide. The Porter-Murray duo outscored the Sixers’ entire team in the first, 30-22. Murray pull-ups, catch-and-shoot Porter threes over shorter defenders, one-handed Jokic passes to open men when the Sixers sent double teams — it was all working for Denver. 

Rebounding was another issue as the Nuggets grabbed 13 of the game’s first 17 boards. Part of that problem was Denver simply not providing many opportunities for defensive rebounds, but the Sixers generally can’t afford subpar rebounding nights when Joel Embiid is out. 

The Sixers are now 6-3 since Embiid’s left knee injury. When will he be back? Rivers said before the game that his comment Monday about the Sixers probably returning to their usual rotation in two games didn’t necessarily mean Embiid would return Saturday. Still, he was positive about his All-Star center.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Whenever Joel comes back, we’re going to go back to our normal rotation. But I have no idea. He’s close, I can tell you that. He’s working every day. I get reports back daily. He looks good. He’s doing well.”

Howard was not ejected for a third consecutive game, though he was called for a Flagrant 1 foul with 11.3 seconds left in the second quarter. His contact to stop a Will Barton layup didn’t appear egregious, but anything Howard does that might be considered more than a basic personal foul is going to be carefully scrutinized by officials. 

Rivers turns to rookies 

After only appearing in garbage time against the Lakers, Paul Reed checked into the game late in the first period. 

He had a couple of good sequences, including a play in which he hung with Murray at the top of the key and contested his three-point attempt. However, he picked up his second foul when he flew out to Paul Millsap and couldn’t control his momentum as the veteran forward put up a three. The Sixers rave about Reed’s energy, something the Sixers sorely lacked throughout the game, but it’s inevitable that he’ll make some rookie mistakes as he adjusts to life in the NBA. 

Fellow rookie Tyrese Maxey replaced Reed. Maxey couldn’t duplicate his 39-point performance in the Sixers’ Jan. 9 loss to the Nuggets, doing little of note in his scoreless four-minute stint in the first half.

The fact that Rivers used two rookies in his rotation is perhaps more significant than how they played in limited time. He could’ve extended his stars’ minutes, sure, but the team’s overall play Tuesday was poor. There wasn’t much risk or harm in trying something different.

A small-ball, all-bench unit with Mike Scott at center and Maxey and Shake Milton (10 points, four assists) in the backcourt trimmed down a Denver lead once as large as 25 points and forced the Nuggets to keep their rotation players on the floor until the final buzzer. Maxey finished with 13 points on 4-for-9 shooting in 16 minutes. 

“For a moment we thought they were going to do it, which is a good sign," Simmons said. “The young guys came here ready and were playing — they were hooping. It was good to see.”

Simmons has relatively limited impact 

Simmons only has five assists over his last two contests. 

Before the game, Rivers said he’d liked what he’d seen recently from Simmons as a screener. 

“We’ve been doing it all year, but he’s getting better at it each game,” he said. “It really depends on the matchups and where we want to use him. We don’t want him to just set picks when teams are switching all the time. We want him to set picks, especially against the smaller guys. I think it’s been more effective on Seth (Curry) actually, because they don’t want to switch that matchup. All we’re trying to do, really — obviously the guy with the ball, if he can get a shot — but what we’re trying to do is deliver it back to Ben in the middle of the paint, because he’s our best decision-maker. I think it’s a very difficult action to guard.”

All of Rivers’ points are sound, although Sixers opponents are not oblivious to the threat Simmons presents. The Nuggets hedged a lot of ball screens, which opened up a few easy lob chances but also sometimes placed the Sixers’ ball handlers in uncomfortable positions.

“For me, I've just got to make a better play, better decision out of it," Harris said. “They had (Jokic) up, so going forward that’s a play where you get the ball from one side to the other and make the big play for semi-blitzing up there. I thought we did it a couple times but not enough, especially in the beginning of the game. It’s a coverage that they use and it won’t be the last time we see that, in my opinion.”

Simmons spent more time watching the action develop from the dunker spot in this game than being impactful as a screener, roller and facilitator. He scored four of his points with the Nuggets leading by over 20 late in the third. While he had two steals, none of the Sixers’ individual defenders were very good in this game, Simmons included.

Tuesday night is not a serious concern in the grand scheme of things, though it’ll be interesting to see how Rivers uses Simmons in half-court offense when Embiid returns and trade deadline-day acquisition George Hill is healthy. 

We’re assuming Simmons will still be featured as a screener and roller, and that defenses will throw a variety of ball screen coverages at the Sixers in the postseason. 

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