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3 observations after Embiid's 41-point, 10-assist night leads Sixers over defending champs

3 observations after Embiid's 41-point, 10-assist night leads Sixers over defending champs originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Sixers handled the defending champions on Tuesday night at Wells Fargo Center.

They beat the Nuggets thanks largely to a sensational Joel Embiid, whose 41-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound performance led the Sixers to a 126-121 victory.

Tyrese Maxey reached the 20-point mark for a 10th straight game. He scored 25 points and dished out nine assists. Tobias Harris added 24 points.

Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic recorded 25 points and 19 rebounds. Star Nuggets guard Jamal Murray had 17 points and 10 assists.

On the second night of a back-to-back, the Sixers’ De’Anthony Melton, Robert Covington, Jaden Springer and Mo Bamba remained out with injuries. Danuel House Jr. (lumbar spine contusion) was sidelined as well after falling hard in the final minute of the Sixers’ win Monday over the Rockets.

The 26-13 Sixers will next play a road back-to-back Friday against the Magic and Saturday against the Hornets. Melton will miss those games because of his back injury and be re-evaluated after the weekend, a team official said.

Here are observations on the Sixers' win over Denver:

Using Harris, variety vs. Jokic 

The Sixers opened with Harris defending Jokic.

That was unsurprising, given Harris’ ability to guard centers and the Sixers’ success putting a physical forward (PJ Tucker) on Jokic in the second half of their win last season vs. the Nuggets.

The early returns defensively weren’t encouraging. Jokic assisted an and-one Aaron Gordon layup when Embiid shifted over to help on a post-up, leaving the two-time MVP a passing window. Denver began 5 for 5 from the floor and Michael Porter Jr. started hot, scoring 10 quick points.

Meanwhile, Embiid and Maxey combined to post the Sixers’ first 14 points. An Embiid elbow jumper over Jokic moved him past Red Kerr for seventh on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Embiid touched the ball on practically every first-quarter Sixers possession and produced impressively against both single coverage and hard double teams, recording 14 points, five assists and three rebounds in the opening period. He did all that despite drawing no foul shots in the first.

Embiid and Nicolas Batum were among the other players to defend Jokic. Beginning around the midway point of the second quarter, the Sixers also started to mix in zone. Nothing appeared to truly stymie Jokic or the Nuggets for long, but the varied approach made sense against an outstanding team and world-class player.

Not just about the superstar big guys

Patrick Beverley continued his strong recent run. He tallied eight points on 3-for-4 shooting in his first stint, including a three-pointer on Jokic that knotted the contest at 34-all.

The second-quarter minutes with both Embiid and Jokic on the sidelines were even. The Sixers’ defensive troubles persisted as they conceded wide-open jumpers to Denver’s role players and committed a few unnecessary, possession-killing fouls. Second-year Nuggets guard Christian Braun racked up 11 points in the second quarter.

Denver also had a substantial early offensive rebounding edge, capitalizing at times on favorable switches. The Nuggets posted nine second-chance points in the first 13 minutes.

Maxey was excellent late in the second quarter. He made Denver pay for helping off of him and shading its entire defense toward Embiid, ran plenty of effective pick-and-rolls with the reigning MVP, and attacked the rim when he had the chance.

At halftime, the Embiid-Maxey duo had 41 points on 15-for-24 shooting, 14 assists and zero turnovers.

Of course, the Nuggets’ stars were as advertised, too. A buzzer-beating Murray three tied the game at 78 apiece heading into intermission.

Embiid gives Sixers big final push to victory

The Sixers’ starting forwards were quite efficient as well. Harris shot 8 for 10 from the floor and scored eight crucial points with Embiid sitting early in the fourth. He got two of those after recognizing a flood of Nuggets defenders coming his way, pump faking and drawing a shooting foul.

Batum went 3 for 4 and was very valuable on both ends. The 35-year-old also exerted maximum effort guarding Murray full court and switching onto essentially everyone on Denver’s roster. During a chaotic third-quarter stretch, Batum chased Murray around, deflected passes, blocked a Jokic attempt inside, and seemed to sprint across every inch of the court.

A Harris corner three gave the Sixers a 97-89 lead. However, the team closed the third quarter badly, losing its offensive precision and failing to find any productive hustle plays. Kelly Oubre Jr. missed a couple of rushed shots, Embiid turned the ball over trying to squeeze a pass in along the baseline, and the Jokic-Murray tandem led the Nuggets’ 12-0 surge to finish the period. The Sixers trailed by five points entering the fourth.

Although Maxey had a rough patch and Denver scored a few easy hoops, the Sixers won those Embiid-less minutes to begin the final quarter. Marcus Morris Sr. converted a crowd-thrilling four-point play right before Embiid subbed back in.

From there, Embiid was well-equipped to haul the Sixers to a win.

Soon after checking back in, the six-time All-Star rumbled in for a fast-break layup that put the Sixers in front. Against Gordon, he nailed an and-one jumper from just inside the arc. Against Jokic, he jab stepped and buried a three to lift the Sixers to a 121-113 edge. Another jumper over Gordon got him to 40 points.

Embiid's streak of consecutive games with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds ended at 16, but his magnificent outing and the Sixers' victory obviously mattered much more Tuesday night.