PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid got the ball as the shot clock ticked down, dribbled, and pulled up against Nikola Jokić.
The 3-pointer went bang, Embiid shrugged his shoulders on the way back to the bench, and the Wells Fargo Center crowd unleashed into an “M-V-P!” chant that reminded everyone who they believed was most worthy of the award.
Embiid’s 47-point outburst — including 12 in the decisive final period — along with 18 rebounds and five assists propelled the 76ers to a 126-119 victory over the Denver Nuggets Saturday afternoon at the Wells Fargo Center in one of the more anticipated games of the NBA’s regular season.
The nationally televised matinee — part of the NBA’s newly created “rivalry week” — matched Embiid, the MVP runner-up the past two seasons, against Jokić, the who beat Embiid for the award both times. Both players are in the conversation for the honor again based on their individual production and team success — the Sixers have won 20 of their previous 23 games, and the Nuggets sit atop the Western Conference standings.
Both star centers, who are lauded for their immense skill for their size, put up impressive numbers Saturday. Jokić, as usual, was in triple-double territory, totaling 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and nine assists.
But Embiid made the biggest shots in crunch time. He tied the game. 108-108, with a pull-up jumper over Jokić with 6 minutes, 57 seconds to play, then again, 110-110, about a minute later. He then gave the Sixers a two-point lead before stretching that advantage to 115-110 with a 3-pointer with 4:36 left. He then fed Tobias Harris in the corner for a 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 118-110, a distance the Nuggets could not overcome.
It was quite the turnaround from a first half that looked like a budding the Nuggets blowout. The Sixers clawed out of multiple 15-point deficits to trail, 99-96, entering the final period.
Denver’s offense was more lethal across the board early on, dropping 73 first-half points, including a 19-8 run to end the second quarter and lead by 15 points at the break. The Sixers answered by opening the third with a 15-4 spurt to close the gap to 77-73 on an Embiid finish at the rim.
The Sixers next play consecutive home games against the Orlando Magic on Monday and Wednesday, before hitting the road to face the San Antonio Spurs on Friday.
Long before Embiid’s massive fourth quarter, the hype around the Embiid-Jokić matchup was apparent. As Embiid stepped to the free-throw line after drawing a foul on Jokić, the “M-V-P!” chants began.
Embiid started 4 of 4 from the field (and, uncharacteristically, 0 for 3 from the foul line) but tailed off for the rest of the first half, with 19 points on 17 shot attempts. Interestingly, Embiid’s sub pattern was different than his normal rotation. Rather than playing all or most of the first quarter, Embiid exited about midway through and came back in around the three-minute mark. Sixers coach Doc Rivers followed a similar pattern during the second quarter.
Embiid was also instrumental in the Sixers’ third-quarter surges, including a reverse dunk on Jokić that cut the deficit to 90-84 and a finish through contact that got the Sixers within 99-93 in the period’s final minute. Then, Embiid collected a steal and smartly drew a shooting foul with less than one second to go in the period to slash the Nuggets’ lead to 99-96 heading into the final period.
Jokić, meanwhile, made six of his first-half shots to help the Nuggets build their double-digit lead — and particularly feasted when matched up with Montrezl Harrell. He hit a 3-pointer to put Denver up, 57-50, backed Harrell down for a jumper to push that advantage to nine points, then drew a foul on Harrell to prompt Embiid to re-enter the game.
Early defensive struggles
After allowing the Nets to shoot 64% during Wednesday’s win, a Sixers defense that has been stout for the bulk of the season struggled again early in Saturday’s contest.
The Nuggets shot nearly 66% from the floor, including 10 of 17 from 3-point range in the first half. Michael Porter Jr. made four of his first five deep shots and finished with 20 points and six rebounds, while Jamal Murray (22 points, six assists) and Aaron Gordon (18 points five rebounds also finished in double figures.
Saturday was the second homecoming for Nuggets second-year guard Bones Hyland, who hails from Wilmington and had another noticeable cheering section in the Wells Fargo Center crowd after a massive performance in Denver’s win in the building last March.
Hyland totaled 11 points on 4-of-10 shooting in 21 minutes as a ballhandler off the bench. His biggest impact came in the first half, when he went up and under for a layup, got behind the defense for a transition finish and then hit a 3-pointer and celebrated by smacking three fingers on his hip.
He then hit a key fourth-quarter shot, answering Harris’ game-tying 3-pointer in the fourth quarter with a dunk.