PHILADELPHIA – When Nikola Jokic called Joel Embiid “probably” the most dominant player in the NBA ahead of Saturday’s showcase, he knew the storm that awaited him.
“I think the same thing today, too,” Jokic said after the game.
Embiid showed off a level few players in the league ever reach, bludgeoning the Nuggets for 47 points and 18 rebounds en route to Philadelphia’s 126-119 win. Embiid’s dagger 3-pointer with 30 seconds left was followed by a shoulder shrug reminiscent of Michael Jordan against the Portland Trail Blazers.
And if it wasn’t in homage to MJ, then perhaps it was Embiid wondering, very publicly, whether this was his year to finally snatch an MVP award.
“He’s really talented,” Jokic said. “Really shifty.”
Jokic was strong, ending the marquee contest with 24 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, but Embiid’s effort was otherworldly. The Nuggets fell to 34-16 with a game Tuesday at home against the Pelicans.
Denver blew a 15-point, second-half lead under a torrent of turnovers and careless plays. Nuggets coach Michael Malone deemed the end of the third quarter a “disaster,” when the Sixers seized momentum with a 12-0 run.
“I’m not worried about Joel Embiid,” Malone said afterward. “I’m more worried about our loss.”
After a stellar first half, the Nuggets’ offense sputtered for just 46 points in the final two quarters. Michael Porter Jr. returned after a brief hiatus, pouring in 20 points on five 3-pointers. Jamal Murray logged 22 points and six assists.
But the Sixers shot 51% from 3-point range, knocking down 18 3-pointers for their seventh win in a row.
Embiid was behind an ignominious Nuggets start to the third quarter, as the Sixers compiled a 15-4 run over the first three minutes. But Denver’s defense settled down. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope stripped the ball twice, once leading to a fruitful transition break, and more turnovers followed. After Jokic, it was Porter whose mere presence helped stretch Philadelphia’s defense. Running the floor hard and finishing, attacking the rim or waiting on the wing for a pass, Porter played his role perfectly.
When the Sixers switched their coverage, opting for P.J. Tucker on Jokic instead of Embiid, it led to angst — and a handful of technical fouls on both sides. The Nuggets felt he was too physical with Jokic, while Tucker played to his size disadvantage. The Sixers whittled away at the margin and trailed just 99-96 heading into the fourth.
Prior to the game, Malone wasn’t interested in juicing Saturday’s matchup between Jokic and Embiid, who’ve finished 1-2 in MVP voting each of the last two years.
“I know the fans, especially the media, probably make a lot more of it than Nikola, Joel, me or Doc (Rivers),” Malone said before the game.
But both superstars lived up to the billing in the first half. Jokic’s dominance was all-encompassing. He filled it up with 16 points, five assists and four rebounds. Embiid was equally as impressive, entering the break with 19 points and 11 rebounds. Both centers overwhelmed the opposing defense, lending credence to the idea that the big man, despite its supposed extinction, wasn’t dead yet.
“Don’t put centers in a box,” Malone said. “These guys are creative.”
Behind their elite, unselfish offense, the Nuggets carried a 73-58 lead into halftime on the strength of 66% shooting. With Jokic at the helm, Denver’s offense soared. It also featured an excellent return from Porter, who buried four 3-pointers en route to 12 first-half points. But he brought it defensively, too.
Murray added 13, helping to spearhead the non-Jokic minutes.
Notoriously rowdy, Philadelphia’s fans buried Jokic’s pre-game player introduction in boos. Their derision preceded a magnificent first half.
Want more Nuggets news? Sign up for the Nuggets Insider to get all our NBA analysis.