The Denver Nuggets were caught up in another barnburner tonight…against a team that had no business playing with them in the Philadelphia 76ers…and they lost.

They nearly snagged victory from the jaws of defeat, but Gary Harris missed the last opportunity to tie the game on a relatively clean look about ten feet from the basket. Sounds like the Atlanta Hawks game.

The Nuggets were given an immediate advantage before tipoff. While Wilson Chandler and Jamal Murray were both dealing with soreness, it prevented neither from suiting up. The Sixers on the other hand…well, they had some injuries. Jahlil Okafor, Sergio Rodriguez, Gerald Henderson, and Richaun Holmes all sat out this game, leaving a depleted roster centered around Joel Embiid.

The normal small ball starting lineup generated some strong passing and good looks, and the Embiid vs Nikola Jokic was as good as advertised. Jokic hit his first four shot attempts and scored 10 points in the first five minutes, while Embiid gave the Nuggets and Jokic issues on the offensive glass. Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown made a quick substitution to Nerlens Noel for Embiid, who made his presence felt immediately with a steal on one end and an alley-oop on the other. The story of the first segment was the poor defensive rebounding by Denver, as they gave up 8 of the first 14 Sixers points on 2nd chance possessions.

The rebounding and interior defense settled in a tad as Jokic continued a solid performance, while Gary Harris continued to show his ever-improving playmaking skills. Interestingly, Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic were both inserted at around the three minute mark in the first quarter for Gallinari and Jokic, assumably to shore up the rebounding issues. Then, it became clear:

As I’m typing, it becomes clear to me that Jamal Murray may receive a DNP-CD.

(Edit: he didn’t, but he only played 12 minutes and was largely invisible)

Immediately, the interior defense and rebounding look better with the duo, as Faried drew a nice charge. Nurkic had an awkward post up that was blocked by Embiid, but overall, he played solid minutes. The offense bogged down other than a Jameer Nelson three point shot and Faried free throws, but this was to be expected. The quarter ended with a Sixers 30-28 lead.

Nurkic had a rough start to the second quarter with a tough foul call against him and a blown layup on the other end. He did a better job of playing defense on Embiid after the timeout though. Jokic came in soon after to help the offense flow, and the rest of the starters soon followed. Offense for both teams opened up at this point, and the Sixers made some shots they normally wouldn’t. After Noel made some great plays inside, Gallo fouled him hard in transition. Hopefully it slows him down a bit.

The Nuggets came back to life at this point a bit, with some proper aggressiveness to the rim and better defense. Mudiay drew an offensive foul and even needed some resuscitation. Unfortunately, Jokic picked up some fouls in the middle of the second quarter and put fear in the hearts of Nuggets fans. Ben Taylor needs a reality check. When he went out, the Nuggets were down by six points when Jokic went out, but Nurkic provided some great minutes in his stead. He made some good defensive plays, generated good offensive looks AS THE ONLY BIG MAN IN THE GAME, and looked much better than his first stint. He helped Denver cut the lead down entirely, and the game was tied at 60 going into halftime.

At half, the two points leaders were Jokic and Ersan Illyasova, who both posted 16. Illyasova was the player most killing the Nuggets on both ends through the first half, as he hit all four of his three point shots. Interestingly, Jokic was not the leader in assists for Denver. Mudiay was, who had four at this point to go with zero turnovers on the makings of a pretty good performance.

Gary Harris opened the second half nicely, generating a great steal against Embiid and hitting a three pointer. His shot looks better this year. The biggest problem? The Nuggets forgot how to defend Illysaova again. Both teams struggled defending the other at this point, and the air was sucked out of the building when Jokic picked up his fourth foul with just over seven minutes left.

The Nuggets were saved by Mudiay though, strangely. He started the second half with eight points, including two threes and a nice alley-oop from Will Barton. His strong play helped guide Denver through times where the offense struggled a bit, strangely.

At around the 3:00 minute mark in the third quarter, we saw a Faried vs Embiid matchup at center, and while Denver continue to struggle rebounding the basketball, it wasn’t a complete disaster and actually finished 8-8 even. It didn’t help though that of all people, Robert Covington got hot from three, the guy that went 0/11 in last night’s game.

So, that doesn’t help, but the Nuggets were only down four, 91-87, going into the fourth quarter.

Nurkic started the fourth quarter against Embiid with Faried off the floor. Nelson hit a nice semi-transition three pointer to tie the game up, but T.J. McConnell hit one to match. McConnell is a 19 percent three point shooter. Embiid also popped a three pointer and hit it. The Sixers were just hitting everything. Malone went with Nurkic for a long time, and he did some good and bad things.

Jokic and Gallo came back in at just under the 6:00 minute mark in the fourth quarter, as did Mudiay. It just doesn’t matter though when McConnell (19 percent three point shooter) hits a three. Mudiay kept it close though with another three. Defense tightened up again though, and it allowed the Nuggets to creep ever closer. McConnell hit another fucking three though…giving the Sixers a 117-113 lead with 1:22 left in the game.

Gallo drew two free throws while getting Embiid his fifth foul, and after forcing a miss at the other end, Jokic drew two shots and tied the game with 50 seconds left. Embiid drew a foul with 31.5 seconds left and made 12 after a very helpful bounce. On the other end, Jokic was nearly tackled from the air by Covington while getting the ball stripped from under the rim by Embiid. Embiid then sank two more free throws to extend the lead to three. Gallo threw down a dunk with 10.1 seconds left to cut it to 1. At this point, both teams played the free throw game, and the Nuggets nearly had an opportunity to tie the game up at the end, but Harris missed the easy bank shot. Nuggets lose 124-122.

Matchup to watch: Front court vs Front court

Both front courts presented intriguing decisions pregame for both coaches, and neither disappointed. While Jokic made things more difficult for Malone with three fouls in the first half, Malone’s use of Nurkic and Faried in his stead was pretty sound. It was difficult at the shooting forward position though, as Chandler and Gallinari lost their battles against Covington and Illyasova. people got caught up in Jokic vs Embiid, but many front court players changed this game for both teams.

Closing thought: Nurkic and the rotation

It’s going to be interesting to see how Malone handles the rotation with Nurkic playing another strong game in the first half. Faried took the first part of the second half minutes backing up Jokic at center, while Nurkic took the next segment. This might work, but it seems unsustainable. If they are both willing to be matchup players, then it certainly would be smart to do offense/defense subs between the two. Both bring strong skill sets to the table that impact the game in different ways, and they both deserve minutes in various situations.