Embiid goes for 41 and 10 assists to out-duel Jokic: Likes and dislikes
The Sixers (25-13) hosted the Denver Nuggets (28-13) on Tuesday. Both teams wanted to push their respective winning streaks to three games. Joel Embiid went for 41 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds to out-duel Nikola Jokic in Philadelphia, 126-121.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Nuggets were without the services of Julian Strawther, who has a right knee contusion and sprain.
Vlatko Cancar is recovering from left knee surgery and is out for the season.
Michael Malone started Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and Jokic.
The Sixers were without the services of De'Anthony Melton, who is receiving treatment for a stress response to lumbar spine soreness.
Danuel House Jr. missed the game with a lumbar spine contusion. Mo Bamba has a fat pad impingement in his right knee and was out.
Robert Covington has left knee inflammation and was not available. Jaden Springer missed the game with right ankle tendinitis.
Kenny Lofton Jr. has a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder and was out.
Nick Nurse started Tyrese Maxey, Kelly Oubre Jr., Nico Batum, Tobias Harris, and Embiid.
- The "Likes" start and end with Philadelphia's core three of Embiid, Maxey, and Harris. The third guy bailed the Sixers out at the start of the fourth quarter. Philadelphia appeared to be in a bit of trouble, tasked with surviving minutes without Embiid after surrendering the lead at the end of the third quarter.
Harris got to his spots in the mid-post, twirling his way to favorable spots to get his fading jumper off. He laced one fading to the baseline, too. Say what you must about his contract and his tendencies in big moments, but the Sixers do not win this game without him taking over while Embiid was recharging to start the fourth quarter.
- Denver vacillated between kind of caring about and completely ignoring Maxey. Frankly, it was insulting to Maxey how open he was on a number of his threes. Embiid just had to flip the ball back to him in the two-man game and a miscommunication or, less gratuitously, a lack of effort to close out yielded the young guard open looks. He got up nine triples in the game, and was appropriately aggressive as a driver.
The big difference between Maxey and some of these other small guards who put up big offensive numbers is that no. 0 genuinely tries to not be a weak link on defense. His height is what it is and that will always be a problem. As he gets older, he'll get stronger, and that'll help with some matchups. But, right now, he's simply competing when he gets targeted. Maxey got beat by crafty moves from Murray in this game, but he leveraged his speed to ignite havoc in the lanes. He got to loose balls and sold out on shaky passes to get Philadelphia into transition.
- Embiid's streak of 30-point-and-10-rebound games came to an end, but that didn't mean he didn't author a dominant effort to lead his team. It wasn't the best defensive night for him (see below), but he never took his foot off the gas on offense. It was just another night at the office for Embiid's scoring column; totally dominant, totally untouchable. But, it was his passing that was particularly special. Save for a few moments, he didn't force shots at the expense of open teammates. He was the fulcrum out of the high post, taking his time to read the floor and make the best play. The rock pinballed around the court all night long, Embiid roping passes to open shooters.
He knew he was going to need to keep his teammates involved in order to get the win against Denver. But, passing the ball is one thing. Continuing to invest trust in your teammates is another. Oubre had an absolutely brutal stretch on offense in the middle of the third quarter - which we'll get to later - but that didn't stop Embiid from looking his way. He could've easily looked off Oubre, opting to turn to another teammate or take the shots, himself. Instead, he went right back to him to continue the flow of the play, willing to live with the possibility of the possession going haywire.
- If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Sixers picked up where they left off the last time the Nuggets were in town, with pretty much anyone not named Embiid guarding Jokic while the reigning MVP roamed around the paint to offer help. It worked quite well last season, PJ Tucker giving Jokic a helluva time in the second half so that Embiid could protect the interior. It stalled Denver's offense and helped Philadelphia rally for a comeback victory on a national stage. But, in Tuesday's sequel to last season's duel, the Sixers did not execute the scheme nearly as well.
There were two fundamentals problems. First, Embiid's decision-making on that end of the floor left a lot to be desired. If you're going to roam and effectively defend by being a shader, you cannot be out of position against Denver. The only player on that team you need to shade for is Jokic, who happens to be the best passer in the sport. Jokic didn't exactly shred the Sixers with snazzy passes in the first quarter, but he did make it clear that he knew exactly where Embiid was on the court.
Not only was Embiid's positioning bad, but his awareness of Jokic's teammates was not good enough. For instance, there was a possession very early in the game in which Embiid preemptively shaded towards the baseline with Jokic posting up in the opposite short corner. He ignored that Gordon, an excellent cutter, had become his assignment when he flashed through the paint. Leaving Gordon unattended at the rim, Embiid gave Jokic a window to feed his teammate. Caught out of position with little time to recover, Embiid jumped at a Gordon fake and sent him to the line for two free throws.
There were a couple of miscalculations just like that one throughout the first half, Embiid not staying available to protect the basket because he was pre-occupied with being there to help on Jokic. But, he wasn't the only blue jersey to have a record-scratch moment on defense. Gordon is shooting 30 percent from deep this season, and has never been a credible three-point shooter. Why are you jumping at his shot fakes?
- The score at halftime lended to some dialogue about the quality of defense, which I thought was a bit off the mark. Both teams benefitted from some abnormally favorable shooting luck; it's relatively rare that both teams in the same game get that. So, while there were certainly some rough defensive moments for both teams, there was also a fare share of good efforts to make things difficult on the opposing offense. But, brilliant shotmaking beat bits of good defense in the first half. But, there was one particularly bad defensive sequence that hurt Philadelphia late in the third quarter. It started with a decision by the head coach.
Nurse inserted a lineup of Maxey, Patrick Beverley, Furkan Korkmaz, and Marcus Morris Sr. around Embiid. As if the obvious shortcomings with that group weren't enough, the defensive scheme they were in made the Sixers vulnerable to ridiculous matchups against Jokic. Denver went on a 9-0 run to end the third quarter with that group on the floor, led by Jokic executing on Philadelphia's defensive breakdowns.
- The Sixers appeared ready to open the game up a bit with a flurry in the middle of the third quarter that put Philadelphia up by eight. But, any and all momentum dissipated courtesy of an Oubre attempt to play hero. He triggered a pair of threes very early in the clock, rushing possessions when Philadelphia should've been trying to get good looks. Accompanying the quick threes was a travel on a drive to the basket and a midrange jumper that was well off the mark.
The Sixers (26-13) will visit the Orlando Magic (22-18) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
Check Out Greater Atlantic City, NJ Area Athletes Who Played Games In NFL
Gallery Credit: Joshua Hennig/Townsquare Media