The Denver Nuggets caught the Philadelphia 76ers on the end of a four game road trip and riding a two game losing streak. The game also offered a tantalizing matchup inside between centers Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid who would start out slow but finish strong. That was the case for the entire Nuggets team who marched all the way back from a 19 point deficit to allow Jokic to hit the game winner. Big nights from Jamal Murray and Will Barton helped Denver along the way and overcome a big night of three point shooting from the Sixers.
The Nuggets started out cold from the floor, missing their first five shots which allowed the Sixers to build an early lead. Still the defense was strong, Murray had a nice block, and Barton ended the drought with a three then Nikola followed it with an impressive and-one to bring the Nuggets back ahead. The Sixers quickly caught the cold shooting bug themselves while Joker was giving the Nuggets production on both ends of the court. Out of a timeout the Sixers hit back to back threes and drew a foul to spark a quick 8-0 run and take back the lead. With about four minutes to go and the Nuggets offense still sputtering Jokic got upset about a no call and earned himself a technical with Denver down five. Luckily Barton was having an outstanding quarter which kept Denver afloat with Jokic’s superb passing on the bench. The Sixers weren’t doing a ton on offense but they were hitting their threes which was enough to keep them ahead with the quarter coming to a close. The bench played strong defense but had a mixed bag on offense as the quarter ended and the Sixers led by six after one.
Denver’s offense was still fairly non-existent to open the second quarter. Plumlee picked up two fast fouls and had to sit but Jokic immediately picked up a foul of his own. The Sixers took advantage of catching the Nuggets on their heels and pushed their lead to double digits. Looking for a spark, coach Michael Malone put in Michael Porter Jr. after a timeout. Two possessions later he cut back door and Nikola found him on an alley-oop. Murray was able to get some shots to go as well but the Nuggets were struggling to defend anything and the Sixers lead remained above ten points. The Nuggets worked to be aggressive which got them some looks at the rim or from the free throw line but they continued to not be able to cool off Philadelphia. If it were not for the scoring of Murray the Nuggets could have found themselves down twenty, but with just under four minutes to go they trailed by twelve. Paul Millsap tried to posterize Embiid but instead got stuffed. Murray was still doing what he could but with the Nuggets unable to string together stops Philly carried a fifteen point lead into the half.
Gary Harris opened the second half with a much needed three but the Nuggets were still allowing easy baskets inside. Denver’s D finally put on the clamps which allowed them to rattle off a 7-0 run to cut the Sixers lead in half. Murray continued to be red hot, almost single handedly keeping the Nuggets within striking distance. Outside of Murray though there was little to speak of in terms of scoring from the Nuggets so the Sixers lead remained right under ten as they headed towards the back end of the quarter. Denver’s bench, once again with MPJ as part of the rotation, held serve closing out the quarter at first but likewise struggled to defend the three point line or string together shots. Meanwhile Embiid had finally found some rhythm on offense and scored six straight points. When the third quarter came to an end the Nuggets were down by nineteen.
The Nuggets came out in the fourth with energy. They defended better and were moving the ball on offense. After Millsap hit a three and stripped Embiid, Murray found Jokic on an incredible dime to get Denver back within fourteen. Jokic finally hit a three and that forced the Sixers to call a timeout with the Nuggets on an 8-0 run. The timeout worked to cool off Denver but Philly still was struggling. The game went a couple minutes without a team scoring before Philly broke the ice with a three pointer (what else). Denver wasn’t going to go down without a fight though. Jokic and Millsap kept the pressure on in the post while Murray was playing some of his best point guard minutes. At just under the five minute mark a Jokic floater in the lane got Denver within eight. Embiid came back by being aggressive inside but he seemed content to let Nikola shoot threes on the other end and Joker was starting to knock them down. Embiid kept the Nuggets behind but picked up his fifth foul and Barton hit a huge three to pull the Nuggets within one with a minute to go. After Embiid and Murray traded baskets Horford air balled a three to give the Nuggets the ball and a chance to win with 13 seconds. It didn’t go exactly how coach Malone drew it up but after a scramble Millsap found Jokic for a long two and Joker buried it with 1.2 seconds to go. Embiid fouled out on the inbound after shoving Jokic in the back which gave Denver the ball, BArton buried two free throws and it was over. Nuggets pull off the big win 100-97.
Best matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Joel Embiid
Despite neither player shooting it tremendously, they still ended up with pretty impressive nights. Each player used their other skills to contribute before becoming the focal point of their team’s offense down the stretch. Embiid caused all kinds of problems for the Nuggets with his defense and was dominant on the glass meanwhile Jokic impacted the offense with his passing and play making. Ultimately not the heavyweight bout everyone was hoping for but it just goes to show how truly talented these guys are because they still put up stat lines most players would take on any day. In terms of the overall Jokic vs Embiid debate I’m not sure a ton was decided here tonight…Joker got the last laugh though.
Main thing I noticed: This team doesn’t quit
There wasn’t a ton to like about the Nuggets game tonight but when it came to crunch time they figured out a way to get it done. Murray was the constant throughout and Jokic came up big when they needed him the most. The game was sort of a microcosm of the season so far. It hasn’t always been pretty but Denver finds a way to get it done. The early season is really all about just banking as many wins as you can so you can’t complain too much with Denver now sitting at 6-2. Is there work to be done, particularly on the offensive end? Yes, but this team is showing even when they are not at their best they still are good enough to beat some of the best teams in the league.
Closing thought: Murray is making the next step
A lot has been made about Jamal Murray and his early season struggles of year’s past. Perhaps that feeling is what led some to think he is off to a slow start again this season but in reality he’s been Denver’s best player. There’s no way the Nuggets win without him tonight. We’ve heard about him being more of a leader in the locker room and Jamal talked about taking on a bigger leadership role at media day but we’re also seeing it on the court. If he can keep it up he’s going to have a strong case to be an all star which can only mean good things for the Nuggets.