76ers’ Joel Embiid Scores 34 Points, Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic Prevails – NBC10 Philadelphia

3 observations after Embiid (34 points), Sixers lose to Jokic’s Nuggets originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Monday night’s duel between two MVP contenders lived up the hype, but it didn’t pan out as the Sixers envisioned.

Joel Embiid’s Sixers fell to a 114-110 loss to Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets at Wells Fargo Center. 

Embiid had 34 points and nine rebounds, while Jokic posted 22 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.

James Harden notched 24 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds. Matisse Thybulle tied his career high with six steals.

The Sixers will play the Cavs on Wednesday night in Cleveland. Here are observations on their loss to Denver:

Long-awaited matchup an entertaining one 

Unsurprisingly, Embiid was attacked-minded from the opening tip in his first game against Jokic since December of 2019. 

On the Sixers’ second possession, he beat Jokic with a pump fake followed by a driving dunk. The next time down, he made a three-pointer off of a pick-and-pop with Tyrese Maxey. Embiid sunk two threes before the Nuggets had any. While Denver began 0 for 8 from long range, an Embiid jumper put the Sixers ahead 27-14, fired up the home fans, and inspired Harden to give the big man a firm, celebratory shove.

No NBA game is ever a true one-on-one duel, and that reality had a major impact Monday. Embiid played a bit less than usual in the first half because of foul trouble and DeAndre Jordan’s minutes against Jokic were seriously unsteady. Jordan did block Jokic in the second quarter, but he allowed the four-time All-Star to hit a wide-open three on the Nuggets’ next possession. Jordan (three points on 1-for-6 shooting, six rebounds) also failed to convert several relatively routine short-range shots. 

With Embiid on the bench, Denver cut a deficit as high as 19 points down to five at halftime. The standout play from the Nuggets’ run was a nifty, in-stride pass from Jokic to Jeff Green for a dunk. 

Denver kept rolling to start the second half, tying the game at 61-all on a Jokic layup and taking the lead on another Green slam. Embiid got good looks on the short roll, but he missed three mid-range jumpers and it was valid to wonder whether the Sixers were worn out from Sunday night’s overtime win in Orlando. But, to Embiid and the Sixers’ credit, they didn’t panic or deviate from what was producing high-quality shots. Embiid made three key jumpers and the Sixers held an eight-point lead when he rested late in the third period. 

A blatant missed travel by Jokic cost them two points, but the Sixers managed without Embiid thanks to productive isolation play from Harden and led by seven points entering the fourth. The Sixers couldn’t capitalize on Jokic’s rest, though. Cousins sunk two threes, knotting the score at 92 apiece, and Denver went up 94-92 on a Bryn Forbes layup. 

Both Jokic and Embiid converted absurd, off-balance shots down the stretch. Jokic gave the Nuggets a 112-108 edge with an unbelievable flip at the hoop that somehow dropped.

Thybulle the ultimate X-factor 

Matisse Thybulle made quite a few positive offensive plays in the early going, a significant development given the Sixers’ continued efforts to force defenses to respect his presence, the team’s recent run of poor starts, and the fact that the 25-year-old played little down the stretch of Sunday night’s overtime win in Orlando.

In addition to slamming home two dunks, Thybulle tapped out an offensive rebound, assisted a transition Tobias Harris three-pointer, and drained a corner three of his own. He finished the first quarter with nine points on 4-for-4 shooting, four steals, two assists, two rebounds and a block.

While much of his success was instinctive, not a byproduct of structured actions, any flickers of Thybulle and the Sixers figuring things out offensively matters in the big picture. If he helps in the playoffs with the occasional put-back layup, fast-break dunk and catch-and-shoot three, that’s great for the Sixers. He doesn’t need to be brilliant offensively to justify a starting spot and heavy minutes.

Thybulle blocked Jokic in the second quarter when he recognized Shake Milton’s predicament on a switch and freelanced for one of his regular defensive highlights. But on Denver’s next possession, he committed a momentum-halting foul on Bones Hyland behind the arc. In third quarter, Thybulle notched his fifth steal with a hard-charging, sneaky double team on an unsuspecting Jokic. 

Picking “X-factors” is a popular exercise ahead of the postseason. We think it’s safe to lock in Thybulle as an important one for the Sixers.

Bones and the bench decide game 

For the most part, Harden made sound decisions against Denver’s aggressive pick-and-roll defense. He found Embiid in promising areas on the short roll and took what the Nuggets gave him.

It sure seems the Sixers will need Harden to be great in the postseason when Embiid sits. He stepped up late in the third quarter as the 32-year-old blocked a Hyland three, drained a step-back jumper and drew frequent fouls. 

Tyrese Maxey didn’t look like a third star, but he was better than in the Sixers’ past two games at decisively picking his spots. Among his best plays were a strong baseline drive and dunk and a pull-up jumper to tie the game at 103-all. Maxey’s demonstrated again and again that he’s a fast learner, and he’s figuring out works for him next to another star. 

Hyland outshined the Sixers’ backcourt during a game-turning stretch in the fourth quarter, though. The Wilmington, Delaware native made three triples that lifted the Nuggets to a 103-97 lead and soaked in every second of the big-game experience. 

Hyland scored 21 of the Nuggets’ 48 bench points, while the Sixers’ second unit shot a collective 4 for 24 and totaled 14 points. 

Danny Green was back Monday after missing two games with a left middle finger laceration. Isaiah Joe did not appear in the Sixers’ nine-player rotation.

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