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Joel Embiid’s 47 points and 18 rebounds propels Sixers to comeback win over Denver Nuggets in battle of MVP contenders

Philadelphia Inquirer 1/28/2023 Gina Mizell, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sixers center Joel Embiid gets fouled by Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (left) in the first quarter Saturday. © Yong Kim / Staff Photographer/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS Sixers center Joel Embiid gets fouled by Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (left) in the first quarter Saturday.

Joel Embiid got the ball well above the top of the key as the shot clock ticked down with less than one minute to play. He dribbled twice to his left, then between his legs, then hesitated slightly before switching hands once more and stepping back against Nikola Jokić.

The three-pointer went bang, Embiid shrugged his shoulders on the way back to the bench, and the Wells Fargo Center crowd erupted into another “M-V-P!” chant that reminded everyone who they believed was most worthy of the award that had gone to that sequence’s defender the past two seasons.

Embiid’s 47-point outburst — including 12 in the decisive final period — along with 18 rebounds, five assists, three steals, and two blocks 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.

“I’ve always liked to think I’m a closer, and I am,” Embiid said. “It’s fun taking the last-second shots, with 4, 3, 2 on the clock left. It’s fun for me. I like that challenge. I like getting to the fourth quarter and getting into those types of possessions where you’ve got to go out and make the plays. …

“That’s where you find out who’s who — who’s made for those types of moments.”

The nationally televised matinee — part of the NBA’s newly created “rivalry week” — matched Embiid, the league’s Most Valuable Player 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 (32-16) have won 20 of 24 games, the Nuggets sit atop the Western Conference standings, and both teams entered the game having gone an NBA-best 8-2 in their last 10.

Embiid’s latest onslaught also came less than 48 hours after he was not selected as an Eastern Conference All-Star starter in a vote from fans, media, and players.

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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 an efficient 8-of-12 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and nine assists.

But Embiid made the biggest plays during crunch time.

He tied the game, 108-108, with a pull-up jumper over Jokić with 6 minutes, 57 seconds to play, then again at 110 on another jumper about over a minute later. He then gave the Sixers a two-point lead with a fastbreak runner, before stretching that advantage to 115-110 with a three-pointer with 4:36 left. He then fed Tobias Harris in the corner for a three-pointer that pushed the lead to 118-110, a distance the Nuggets (34-16) could not overcome.

It was quite the turnaround from a first half that looked like a budding Nuggets blowout. The Sixers clawed out of multiple 15-point holes to close the gap to 99-96 entering the final period, before outscoring Denver, 30-20, in the final frame without committing a turnover.

“We kind of just find something during those deficits that allows us to gain some momentum and some energy,” said Harris, who scored all 14 of his points in the second half on 6-of-7 shooting. “That whole game was us just fighting and really lock in defensively to get enough stops to win it.”

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, 73-58, at the break. The Sixers answered by opening the third with a 15-4 spurt to trim 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.

Big-man battle

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 on the Sixers’ first possesion, 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 shots. 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 and free throw that got the Sixers within 99-93 in the period’s final minute. Then, Embiid collected a steal and smartly drew a shooting foul 50 feet from the basket with less than one second to go in the period, making all three foul shots to slash the Nuggets’ lead to 99-96 heading into the final period.

Jokić, meanwhile, made six of his seven first-half shots to help the Nuggets build their double-digit lead — and particularly feasted when matched up with backup center Montrezl Harrell. Jokic hit a three-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. He went 2-of-5 from the floor during the second half, but recorded four rebounds and four assists during that span.

Defensive adjustments

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 Saturday before making a couple of key adjustments.

Before the break, the Nuggets shot nearly 66% from the floor and 10-of-17 shooting from three-point range. Then, Rivers opted to put the undersized-yet-physical P.J. Tucker on Jokic, allowing Embiid to roam more as a rim protector. It’s a shift Rivers said that was discussed in recent days, after watching Tucker play against Jokic while with the Miami Heat last season. Tucker forced Jokic to catch the ball above the three-point line, limiting the effectiveness of dribble-handoffs to teammates.

“When I was guarding Jokic, they just were able to get whatever they wanted, because he’s such an amazing passer,” Embiid said. “ ... Making that switch won us the game.”

Harris, meanwhile, was tasked with guarding standout point guard Jamal Murray, an ask Rivers said yielded a profanity-laced affirmative response and that Harris said “gave me a lot of energy on the floor.” Murray went 2-of-7 from the floor after the break and had a plus/minus of minus-24.

Overall, the Sixers outscored the Nuggets, 68-46, in the second half.

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Hyland’s homecoming

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 three-pointer and celebrated by smacking three fingers on his hip.

He then hit a key fourth-quarter shot, answering Harris’ game-tying three-pointer with a dunk.

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