Nikola Jokic

Sixers vs. Nuggets: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

Sixers vs. Nuggets: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

Updated: 7:30 p.m.

The 17-7 Sixers will try to maintain perfection at home Tuesday night and earn their 13th win of the season at Wells Fargo Center when they play the 14-7 Nuggets, who have lost four of their past five games.

Here are the essentials: 

When: 8 p.m. ET 
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: TNT
Live stats: Follow here 

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Fourth-quarter offensive woes 

The fourth quarter of the Sixers’ Nov. 8 loss in Denver was their worst of the season. They were outscored 35-13, struggled to create everything they got on offense and saw Nikola Jokic nail a go-ahead jumper with 1.2 seconds left and Josh Richardson in his face at the end of a broken play. To make things more painful, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report deemed that, on the ensuing possession, the offensive foul call on Joel Embiid actually should have been a foul on Jokic.

Though that particular fourth period was especially bad, it hasn’t been a productive quarter for the Sixers’ offense overall this season. The team has a 102.9 fourth-quarter offensive rating, which is third-worst in the NBA, and allowed the Raptors to make the end of Sunday night’s game a turnover-filled farce, coughing it up seven times in the final 4:14. 

“Where do we begin? Some of the passing decisions, it's stuff you’ve just got to get better with,” Brett Brown said. “I’m not really too sure how to address some of it, some of it you just scratch your head and try to coach better and help them more. It is disappointing the way that ended because I thought for the most part, we played good basketball. It's just the way that it ended, you have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth.”

Richardson’s return

Richardson will make his return to the lineup. Though the Sixers have gone 5-1 in the six games Richardson has been out since sustaining the injury on Nov. 27 against the Kings, they’ll welcome back his ability to defender smaller guards, a duty Ben Simmons has assumed more — and handled very well — recently. 

Before the game, Richardson had a big smile as he talked about being able to play again.

"I’ve been itching to go back out there for a while, but sometimes you’ve just gotta be smart," he said. "Just tried to take my time getting back and hopefully today goes well.”

The fifth-year guard won't be without limitations. It sounds like the Sixers plan to ease him back into action.

"We’ll probably be watching my minutes for the first couple games back but while I’m on the floor, I’m going to go all out," he said.

A blueprint vs. the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense 

The Nuggets hedged hard on the pick-and-roll often in their first matchup vs. the Sixers. A unit with Raul Neto at the point — Simmons was sidelined with a shoulder sprain — had success against that scheme in the second quarter. Kyle O’Quinn, who scored a season-high 11 points in the game, rolled to the rim, forced a help side defender to tag him in the paint and freed up the Sixers’ shooters. 

Furkan Korkmaz was frequently the shooter who profited, scoring 12 points on 4 of 5 shooting, and the Sixers’ bench outscored Denver’s, 37-12.

If the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense is aggressive again, the Sixers’ approach a little over a month ago in the second quarter is the way to beat it — draw help on the roll, move the ball crisply and make scrambling defenders pay by hitting open threes. 

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Joel Embiid's fitness level already a concern for Sixers

Joel Embiid's fitness level already a concern for Sixers

Joel Embiid didn’t earn Defensive Player of the Year or All-NBA First Team center last season.

He had the chance to go head to head and outperform the big men that took those honors last season. Instead, he had a poor second half in Utah Wednesday and followed it up with a rough performance Friday night in Denver.

Though Rudy Gobert didn’t really get the better of Embiid, Nikola Jokic had a monster fourth quarter and made a difficult, clutch shot with 1.2 seconds left to cap the Nuggets’ 21-point comeback win (see observations).

In the two games since returning from his suspension, Embiid has shot a combined 11 of 33 and committed 11 turnovers and 11 personal fouls. He’s looked lethargic and lackadaisical. He’s struggled to get back defensively and is settling for too many outside shots. He’s essentially running three-point line to three-point line instead of rim to rim.

“We’re growing Joel’s fitness base and trying to continually move that forward where he can be Joel Embiid,” Brett Brown told reporters postgame. “You know, tonight you can see that we’ve got some work to do. I think that he fought his heart out. I think that when we needed him, most times he was there. And we’re going to continue to just get him as healthy as we can and help put him in a position where he can be Joel Embiid.”

The fact that Jokic woke up and put up a 16-point fourth while Embiid continued to struggle wasn’t the only reason the Sixers lost Friday.

They somehow only scored 13 points in the fourth quarter after putting up 84 through three. They looked out of sync and were missing the decent looks they were getting. Perhaps fatigue was an issue for the entire team. Al Horford airballing a wide-open three from the top of the key with 15.7 seconds left seemed to encapsulate the horrendous final quarter for the Sixers.

While you certainly can’t blame blowing a 21-point lead on officiating, the refs didn’t do the Sixers any favors down the stretch. They were on the wrong end of two coach’s challenges — one took away an Embiid and-one and the other was a foul call on Embiid that should have been overturned but was not. On the Sixers’ ensuing possession after Jokic’s big shot, they called Embiid for a push off. The call was questionable as both players appeared to be jockeying for position and Jokic was holding Embiid’s jersey.

In any case, if you preserve the huge lead you have, you don’t leave the game in the hands of the officials.

“When I watched the replay, I didn’t really see any push off,” Embiid said. “If you want to call that foul, especially at that time of the game, I think that’s kind of BS. Especially because he was hooking me before that foul actually happened.

“But those are things we can’t control. We shouldn’t have let it get to that situation. We had a lot of turnovers, missed free throws. Our fourth-quarter offense wasn’t the same as the third. I thought that the first three quarters was the best that we’ve played. The ball kept moving and we kept finding each other and everybody stepped up. It was just unfortunate that it had to come down to that.”

But the storyline in this one was Embiid's health and fitness level.

It was the storyline for the entire 2019 postseason. Just eight games into the 2019-20 season and this is already a troubling trend. Embiid was forced to sit out the second game of the season with an ankle sprain. After missing just two games because of a suspension, he's looked completely gassed since returning.

Yes, altitude is a factor and Embiid has said many times that it’s very easy for him to get out of shape if he misses a game or two, but things have to change. 

Embiid is an All-Star and considered by most to be a top-10 player in the NBA. The Sixers are all in and part of that mindset is the idea that they have arguably the best center in the league. It’s just two games, but he wasn’t even the best center on the floor in Utah or Denver.

The questions about his health and fitness aren’t going away until he gets to the point "where he can be Joel Embiid."

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Sixers' road trip ends in a collapse as big lead slips away in Denver and Nikola Jokic makes game-winner

Sixers' road trip ends in a collapse as big lead slips away in Denver and Nikola Jokic makes game-winner

BOX SCORE 

The Sixers’ four-game West Coast road trip ended Friday night in a collapse.

They blew a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter in Denver and fell to their third straight loss, 100-97, to the Nuggets.

Nikola Jokic won it for Denver after a broken, chaotic play that ended with him knocking down a long jumper from the left elbow extended. 

The Sixers, now 5-3 on the year, tried inbounding it to Joel Embiid on their final possession, but he was called for a push off.

Ben Simmons was out for the Sixers with a Grade 1 AC joint sprain in right shoulder. He’ll be re-evaluated before the Sixers play the Hornets Sunday (6 p.m./NBCSP+).

Offense falls apart late 

The Sixers only managed 13 points in the fourth period. They had problems with the basics, like throwing good entry passes to Embiid and making open shots in the paint, and just about everything was a struggle. It was not hard to tell they were playing the last game of a long trip — Al Horford’s air ball of an open three from the top of the key before Jokic's game-winner summed up their efforts in the fourth. 

Jokic wins this duel 

Embiid admitted after Wednesday’s loss in Utah that the altitude affected him, and he again appeared lethargic for much of the game in the Mile High City.

He was the last man down the floor time after time and was slow in his decision making. 

But, after starting 1 for 9 from the floor and taking a seat five minutes into the third quarter, Embiid woke up a bit when he checked back into the game, hitting four straight shots and helping the Sixers build their lead back up— for the time being — after a Denver run. Embiid finished with 19 points on 6 of 17 shooting, 15 rebounds and eight turnovers.

His block of Paul Millsap’s emphatic dunk attempt was one of the plays of the night. 

Jokic wasn’t quite himself either for most of the night before elevating his play in the second half. He picked up a technical in the first quarter for arguing what he thought was a foul by Mike Scott under the rim and his body language was somewhere between exasperated and infuriated in the first half, but give him credit for turning it around. He tallied 26 points (16 in the fourth quarter), 11 rebounds and six assists. 

A strong night for the bench 

The Sixers’ bench put them in a good position to win this game, outscoring the Nuggets’ 37-12.

Furkan Korkmaz looks like he believes everything he puts up is going in. He’s using his pump fake well to both create open jumpers and to draw fouls, shooting the ball with balance and hunting opportunities to score.

He had 12 points on 4 for 6 shooting and was 3 for 3 from three-point range. The Sixers had their best night as a team from long range, converting 13 of 26 attempts. 

Trey Burke had to wait seven games, but he finally made his regular-season debut as a Sixer in Denver.

He showed his best skill on his first basket — the ability to use a ball screen or stare down his defender in isolation and create a shot — sinking a jumper from the left elbow with 0.2 seconds left in the first quarter off a screen from Embiid. 

We saw the best and worst of James Ennis, who was beaten twice on back doors in the first half and once by Will Barton. He also converted a difficult layup after a steal that required elaborate body contortion and slammed in a dunk off a Burke miss. 

Kyle O’Quinn (11 points on 5 for 6 shooting) gave Brett Brown quality minutes in the second quarter before taking a seat in the second half.

Neto steps into the lineup  

For the second time in the last three-plus seasons, Raul Neto started an NBA game.

He played very well, with the exception of a couple of occasions late in the shot clock when he dished the hot potato off to a teammate after being unable to generate anything himself.

Neto held Gary Harris, his primary assignment, to five points on 2 for 9 shooting, and also posted 13 points and six assists himself. He’s about nine inches shorter than Simmons and substantially less athletic than the All-Star, but Neto was a decent temporary replacement. 

Thybulle sits 

Rookie Matisse Thybulle stayed on the bench Friday. He’s struggled with his shot early in his NBA career (24.2 percent from the field) and hadn’t recorded a steal or a block in the Sixers’ last two games.

Thybulle had an incredible first few games in the NBA defensively, but he’s often seemed a step behind the game on offense, and missing open threes certainly hasn’t helped as far as his level of comfort or confidence.  

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