Joel Embiid was not second best in any way Saturday afternoon.
The MVP runner-up the last 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 straight games.
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 will finish their four-game homestand with games against the Magic on Monday and Wednesday. Here are observations on Embiid's spectacular day and the Sixers' win over Denver:
Star big guys dialed in from the jump
One of the most noticeable aspects early in Saturday’s game was, in a literal sense, off the court. With the shot clocks above the baskets not functioning at Wells Fargo Center, the teams had to rely on a clock stationed at the corner of the baseline floor.
Embiid was working just fine. He got Jokic to commit to his pump fake on the Sixers’ first possession before scoring an and-one hoop. Embiid posted the Sixers’ first six points and began 4 for 4 from the floor, which was a nice bounce back efficiency-wise after his 6-for-18 performance in Wednesday’s win over the Nets.
Oddly, Embiid opened 0 for 3 from the foul line. He’d entered the game at 86.1 percent on the season after shooting 20 for 20 over his last two games. Following two Embiid free throw misses, Michael Porter Jr. drained his second of three first-quarter threes. Jokic then started to figure out Embiid’s timing a bit, stripping him of the ball twice as he rose for mid-range jumpers.
The stylistic contrast is fascinating when Embiid and Jokic match up. Both are excellent mid-range shooters and skilled, savvy big men, but the two go about their business in distinct ways. Jokic essentially plays water polo on a basketball court. He throws effortlessly deft and deceptive passes and makes every player he shares the court with a real threat. The Serbian big man dictates the game in a manner that feels leisurely, and he punishes lapses ruthlessly. Jokic found Bruce Brown on a back-door cut for a layup late in the first, capitalizing on James Harden's inattentiveness.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers changed up Embiid’s normal rotations in the first half Saturday, subbing him out with six minutes left in the first quarter. Unsurprisingly, the Jokic-led Nuggets outscored the Sixers by five points during Montrezl Harrell’s initial stint of approximately two and a half minutes.
Upon returning, Embiid hit two top-of-the-key threes and at least kept the Nuggets from seizing complete control of the game. Still, after a quarter in which Jokic did not sit, Denver had a nine-point advantage.
Sixers can’t shake defensive woes in first half
The Sixers encouragingly ate into 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 following a simple Embiid assist on a Tyrese Maxey three, but the Sixers continued to score freely. Their offensive rebounding was a big help; Embiid, Matisse Thybulle and Shake Milton all converted tip-ins and the Sixers got their deficit as low as two points.
However, the Jokic vs. Harrell minutes were shaky again. Back-to-back Maxey free throw misses also hurt. The Sixers had been 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 sunk a turnaround jumper over Harrell. He attacked the matchup with great comfort.
The Sixers’ defense was poor when Embiid came back in, too. Jamal Murray lobbed a pass in transition ahead of the defense and Aaron Gordon leaped to lay it in. Denver’s point guard posted seven points over the final 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 outshoot their woeful defense. They got zero points from starting forwards Tobias Harris and P.J. Tucker in the first half on five combined field-goal attempts.
The Nuggets racked up 73 first-half points on 65.9 percent shooting, a figure that (narrowly) exceeded 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 always is up for star assignments, and he tried to play his usual tight, physical on-ball defense against Jokic.
Malone picked up a technical foul in the third, seemingly for arguing that Tucker’s shoulder bumps on Jokic should’ve been fouls. About a minute later, Tucker got his fourth foul for off-ball grappling with Jokic. He let the officials know he despised the call and was whistled for a technical of his own. Rivers got a technical during a timeout, too.
Before all of that, the Sixers began the second half well on both ends. Jokic appeared wary at times of being too aggressive on Embiid’s catches at the nail and helping him draw fouls, so Embiid drained a couple of jumpers. His teammates played with better energy, too, and the Sixers trimmed their deficit to 77-73 on an Embiid lay-in off of a pick-and-roll with Harden.
Malone called timeout and the Nuggets restored their desired order. Bruce Brown’s three against a possession of Sixers zone grew Denver’s lead back to 15 points.
The Sixers delivered the necessary immediate response. Georges Niang made back-to-back threes, Embiid scored an and-one layup, and the Nuggets suddenly looked unsteady again. Embiid’s intensity and determination not to lose a marquee game were obvious, too. After stealing a Jokic pass on Denver’s final third-quarter possession, he drew contact against second-year guard Bones Hyland and got himself three free throws. Embiid screamed and pumped 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 cut the team’s deficit to a single point.
The Sixers briefly lost their momentum and went down 106-98 on two Hyland free throws, but Niang hit an important, quick-release three off of a sideline out-of-bounds play to beat the shot clock. Harris then stepped up with a driving lefty layup and a corner three that tied the game at 106 apiece.
At that point, Embiid entered, "Actually, I'm the MVP" mode. He was automatic in isolation against Jokic, drilling back-to-back mid-range jumpers and letting a three fly from the left wing. Embiid canned it and the "MVP" chants indeed flowed from the home fans during Denver's timeout.
Down the stretch, both Tucker and Harris made key defensive contributions. Tucker forced a turnover with sturdy post defense, while Harris swiped a steal on Jokic after a sneak attack at the top of the key. Harris also nailed a corner three after a smart pass from Embiid. And Tucker picked the perfect time for his only points, tipping in a Harden miss after the Nuggets had cut the Sixers' lead to 120-117.
Of course, Embiid had to be the one to stamp the victory. His fourth three of the afternoon put the Sixers up eight points and was a fitting punctuation to an MVP-caliber day.