The Denver Nuggets were not in their groove early, stumbled through the beginning of the second quarter and then turned on the jets to tie it at halftime. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Philadelphia 7ers made the plays down the stretch to pull out a win 117-110. Joel Embiid had a poor shooting night but finished strong to net 15 points, 12 rebounds and 4 big blocks. J.J. Redick was an assassin from deep, finishing with 34 points and 6 made threes, while Jimmy Butler added 22 points and was a perfect 14-of-14 from the line.
Nikola Jokic got yet another triple double with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but needed 22 shots to do it. Jamal Murray added 23 points and stayed in the game after appearing to tweak his hip or his obliques in the fourth quarter, and both Will Barton and Malik Beasley had a good scoring quarter but not necessarily good games. In the end, Denver came up short in a throwback East Coast road swing where they couldn’t close the deal.
The teams started off trading paint layups, with Jokic and Murray cashing in nice assists while Embiid did his damage inside as well. New 76er Tobias Harris hurt Denver inside and out, and a couple of missed buckets from Malik Beasley were compounded by another swished three from JJ Redick and a 14-6 early Philadelphia lead.
The two teams exchanged bricks for the next couple of minutes until Beasley made a corner three. Some strange turnovers from Jokic prevented other scoring opportunities, but Beasley’s 8 early points cut the Denver deficit to just 4. JJ Redick hit a three on a long court assist and Furkan Korkmaz turned what should have been a two-for-one opportunity by Denver into one of their own and Philly led the Nuggets 33-23 after one.
Will Barton finally found his shot with buckets in the first minutes of the second quarter, but Redick buried another pair of threes to stretch the lead back to double digits with 16 points in his first 13 minutes. Denver’s offense sputtered and their guards could not contain Philly’s. A Jokic three pulled it back to 45-34 but it was a dunk line for the 76ers, who hit in the paint and behind the arc.
Denver kept attacking the hoop though, and then a Murray three cut the lead to 7 with 3 minutes to go in the half. Barton and Jokic cut it to three, and then Beasley slammed it home for a 1 point contest. Jokic made all three free throws after a foul and knotted the game at 56 at the half.
Jimmy Butler and Nikola Jokic came out of the half trading buckets. Murray had a beautiful layup but the teams just traded buckets for the first few minutes. Redick remained red-hot, though, scoring 10 of 12 for Philly and putting Denver down 70-64. Denver kept fighting back, though, with a Monte Morris bucket tying the game again with three minutes to go in the quarter and Lyles finally giving the Nuggets the lead at 78-76. Then the 76ers cranked up the pressure as they brought some starters back against Denver’s bench and made free throws when they couldn’t make shots. Embiid got a block at the buzzer on Beasley to keep Philly clinging to a 1 point lead at 83-82 and setting up a tight fourth quarter.
Morris and Lyles opened the scoring for Denver in the final frame. The teams again traded buckets as Lyles made shots and hustled for loose balls. The 76ers kept getting foul calls and getting to the line though, something that paid off later and stole easy points throughout the game. Still, a deep three from Murray put Denver up 95-93 with 7 minutes to go. Murray slipped and tweaked a hip and the Sixers rolled off a couple of buckets, but Jokic tied it up with this transition bucket.
Neither team could get more than a two-bucket lead, however, until a poor turnover by Barton led to Butler free throws and a 109-103 Philly lead late. Plumlee rolled in a hook, but got posterized by Simmons and then Embiid stuffed Malik Beasley with under two minutes to go as the 76ers finally got control of a game they led most of the way. Embiid hit the dagger, Jokic missed the three (though he snagged his triple-double in the waning moments) and Denver lost the final game of their four game road trip 117-110.
Hard to win when you lose the free throw attempt battle 32 to 13. That’s partly on the reffing and partly on Denver’s (lack of) aggressiveness despite their paint points. They were happy to stay perimeter or make open cuts but they didn’t force the action inside on either shot-blocker (Embiid or Boban). Some nights that works, and some nights you can’t get to the line in the final frame until there’s a minute to go. Denver doesn’t rely on the foul line normally (24th in the league in FTAs) but doesn’t usually give up too many, while the 76ers give up a bunch but take the second-most free throws in the league. Tonight Philly got theirs, Denver didn’t follow suit, and it mattered down the stretch.
The All Star break - and some rest for this beat up squad - cannot come soon enough. It felt to me like the Nuggets coasted a bit in the first half before finding their rhythm. They couldn’t disrupt Philadelphia’s rhythm in the second half, though, and just not having the closing legs either on defense or finishing off ball games right now is unlike how they started most of the year. This squad is tired, and injured, and could use the upcoming break for a physical and emotional breather. At least this road trip is over and they get to sleep in their own beds before the Heat come to town.