By: Kylan Watson
The National Basketball Association (NBA) started its first Rivalry Week with the growing rivalry between the Denver Nuggets led by Nikola Jokic the two-time MVP and the Philadelphia 76ers led by Joel Embiid the two-time MVP Runner-up. This contest did not disappoint between two of the hottest teams in the league in the month of January. Embiid and Jokic traded haymakers but Embiid exploded in the second-half to power his team to a 126-117 comeback victory.
The Sixers did not start the game off well they hit the opening shot of the contest, but in the first-half they did not have it throughout the opening two-quarters. They had multiple instances of defensive breakdowns, especially when the Nuggets decided they would not just hoist shots up and attack the basket. They let their men cut to get easy baskets and that opened up the three-point shot for Denver. They hit 14/34 three-pointers in this game and it would have been more than that if Philly had not toughened up on the defensive end. The trio of Nikola Jokic (24-points), Michael Porter Jr. (20-points), and Jamal Murray (22-points) made them pay for daring to leave them open, they combined for 66 of Denver’s 117-points. The three of them would take full advantage of holes in the perimeter defensive game of Philly they would attack the basket or hit pivotal three-pointers. Those shots pushed the Nuggets to a 15-point lead by half-time and they were threatening to shoot the Sixers off the court.
To their credit Philly continued to fight despite the Nuggets shooting them off their home-floor, they were hitting 65% of their shots because of defensive breakdowns. Philly made the adjustments and put PJ Tucker on Jokic and put Tobias Harris on Murray their height and toughness made things difficult for both players and forced them into uncharacteristic turnovers which allowed the Sixers to get out on the fast break and get easy buckets. When Denver would shut down the easy baskets the ball would find Joel Embiid and it seemed like he took the All-Star snubbing ala Michael Jordan personally, because he scorched Jokic tonight who isn’t known for his defense anyway. In one instance tonight he blew by him for a monster one-handed reverse dunk that got his team and the crowd back into this game. Embiid scored 47-points, grabbed 18-rebounds, and hit four/seven three-pointers; the Sixers needed all those points to put the Nuggets down tonight. Embiid made Denver’s defenders pay for giving him any room to get a shot up. When they would stop him from shooting the ball, he made the right play to get the ball to an open teammate. For example, he found Tobias Harris in the corner tonight for a dagger three-pointer to keep the Sixers in-front tonight and push the win streak to seven straight. Embiid’s playmaking tonight was just as deadly as his scoring and defensive play and if he can continue to make the playoffs then the Sixers will find themselves as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference by the All-Star Break. After a slow start in the beginning of this season, the Sixers are not one of the hottest and deepest teams in the league. If they continue to keep gelling, they are a championship contending team in the deep Eastern Conference.
On his incredible game tonight, “I keep getting disrespected and it’s cool. I’m just gonna try and keep helping my teammates… in the playoffs all I ask is no freak injuries and I think I’m due for a big run,” said Embiid.
This may have been a possible Finals preview and the Sixers will need to improve their perimeter defensive play because this was the second straight game where a team shot 65-plus% from the field and still lost to Philly. Their offense bailed them out tonight but they cannot continue to rely on that and second-half defensive adjustments to bail them out after bad first-half play. They are now preparing for a two-game series with the Orlando Magic starting on Monday night to get things right on that end. The Magic have young and athletic forwards that have made things difficult for Philly on the defensive end in the past. Orlando is the perfect squad to get things fixed on the defensive end against they may not have the talent Philly has but they play every opponent tough. Additionally, the Sixers will need to continue using their ball and player movement to get high-percentage shots on the offensive end if they want to get their 33rd win of the season and push the win streak to eight straight games.
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