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Recap: Denver sets its playoff plans on fire, losing to Philadelphia 123-104

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The Nuggets blew a first half lead and got run out of Philadelphia with no answers to their woes

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets have no one to blame but themselves as they fell 123-104 to the Philadelphia 76ers. For a half, the Nuggets looked like they had found an answer as they led 59-51 at the break. Those answers were shredded as the 76ers went on a 72-45 second half run and emphatically slammed the door shut on Denver. The Nuggets’ starters came out sluggish in the second half, went away from their bread and butter, and provided a whole loaf and a butter churn for the 76ers who took advantage on a night when Markelle Fultz made his long-awaited return to their lineup. The 76ers came out of the half like they wanted it more, and they took both the victory and a large chuck of Denver’s fleeting playoff hopes in The Process.

Will Barton started the scoring for Denver with a 3, then hit another after Wilson Chandler stripped Embiid. The Sixers missed their first shots and Barton had Denver’s first 9 points before Embiid put the 76ers on the board. Jokic hit a flip shot for an 11-4 early Denver lead. Jamal Murray slammed home a dunk but the two teams exchanged misses for a couple of minutes. Dario Saric went on the warpath and tied it up at 13 as Denver’s guards chucked contested shots that didn’t fall in a 1-for-8 stretch. When they re-established through Nikola Jokic the Nuggets went on their own mini-run, up to 22-15.

Then Markelle Fultz came in to a standing ovation in a really nice moment. Good to see him back, even if his first touch resulted in a turnover. Fultz got a layup, Embiid hit some free throws, and Ilyasova made a shot but Denver’s bench managed to hold the lead at 27-23 after one.

Jamal Murray buried a 3 to open the second, answered by Robert Covington - who then hit another 3 and a free-throw to tie it at 30. A Plumlee-to-Lyles lob was a nice response, as was Barton’s scoring drive for his 14th point of the game already. Barton airballed a three, Saric made one, and Denver committed its tenth turnover of the half with the score tied at 37. Torrey Craig and Belinelli traded buckets, then Barton swished another pair of threes. Again, though, Denver couldn’t stretch the lead to double-digits thanks to some careless possessions, but a Murray leaner one one end and a block on the other at the buzzer put Denver up 59-51 at the half.

The two teams traded threes to start the second half, and then Embiid stuffed home a jam, somehow got a steal on Jokic on the other end and a Reddick 3 took the lead down to just 3. Jokic hit a two out of the timeout, but Denver misses didn’t help them as Saric hit a couple of buckets to tie it at 64. Redick’s foul shots put the 76ers ahead for the first time in the game, and a Saric scoring burst gave Philadelphia a 71-64 lead on a 17-2 run.

Jokic drew a fourth foul on Embiid to get him out of the game temporarily, and a Millsap-to-Chandler layup ended a 0-for-9 streak for Denver. Millsap hit a couple of tough buckets and drew fouls to get to the line and draw Denver back within 3 at 75-72. The Sixers pulled out to an 11-point lead once Jokic went to the bench and Denver forgot how to play on both ends. Philadelphia led 85-74 after three quarters with a 34-15 point differential for the quarter.

Jokic drew a fourth foul on Embiid to get him out of the game temporarily, and a Millsap-to-Chandler layup ended a 0-for-9 streak for Denver. Millsap hit a couple of tough buckets and drew fouls to get to the line and draw Denver back within 3 at 75-72. The Sixers pulled out to an 11-point lead once Jokic went to the bench and Denver forgot how to play on both ends. Philadelphia led 85-74 after three quarters with a 34-15 point differential for the quarter.

Ilyasova hit a bank shot to start the final quarter, but Plumlee answered with a dunk. Covington dunked right back, though, and the only silver lining was Torrey Craig drawing Embiid’s fifth foul with Denver down 12 at 91-79 with 9+ minutes to go. Redick hit another 3, Simmons hit a coast-to-coast dunk off a Jokic miss and just like that the 76ers were up 17. Murray drove for a traditional 3-point play, but the Nuggets couldn’t out-scrap the 76ers for the 50/50 balls and tough paint points. Denver botched its random isolation offense early, didn’t have its legs into those second half shots and got run out of the gym.

The Nuggets pulled their starters with just under 5 minutes to go

Final Thoughts

Adversity is not Denver’s strong suit. The Nuggets don’t beat good teams as the season closes unless everything goes well. Denver had the first half locked down, and Embiid in potential foul trouble, and then completely folded with the offense falling into terrible isolations and the defense taking an early cab to the airport for the flight out of Philadelphia. The second half disaster run of 17-2 happened with Jokic in the game, but every time he sat the Nuggets gave up even more points. The slightest bit of pressure shows all of the roster’s cracks.

The Nuggets are not eliminated from the playoffs, but this is not the team that could have given some squads frights in the postseason. The only ones scared of these Nuggets are themselves. Denver has a few games left to re-establish its identity and try to find something to hang their hats on, but the squad’s inability to overcome struggle while other teams in the West continue to do so is a black mark that Denver will likely spend the summer trying to erase - while staring at a last-two pick in the lottery for the second straight year.

Bring on Toronto.