Sixers at Nuggets: Improbable comeback falls short without Joel Embiid and James Harden

3 observations after Sixers' improbable comeback falls short in Denver originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

With two stars on the sidelines, the Sixers fell just short of a comeback from 22 points down Monday night.

Though the Sixers almost pulled off a stunning turnaround without Joel Embiid (right calf tightness) and James Harden (left Achilles soreness), they lost their third straight game, a 116-111 decision to the Nuggets at Ball Arena.

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Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic had 25 points on 8-for-11 shooting, 17 rebounds and 12 assists.

Tyrese Maxey notched 29 points, five assists and three steals.

The 49-26 Sixers will host the Mavs on Wednesday night. Here are observations on their final defeat of a 1-3 road trip:

Dedmon gets the nod 

Dewayne Dedmon started a game for the first time this season.

While no center option is nearly as attractive for the Sixers as Embiid, the team had alternatives to the 33-year-old Dedmon that would’ve made sense. In our view, Paul Reed would’ve been appealing as a player who’d immediately bring ample energy, roll hard, force Jokic to work defensively, and embrace the quicker tempo that’s often been at the core of the Sixers’ wins without Embiid. A small-ball starting lineup also would’ve been reasonable, especially since P.J. Tucker played excellent defense on Jokic in the Sixers’ Jan. 28 comeback victory over Denver and the 37-year-old appears set to play high-stakes backup center minutes in the postseason.


Regardless, Dedmon was head coach Doc Rivers’ choice and the Sixers faced a 14-10 deficit following his first stint. Dedmon ended up playing 10 minutes and the Sixers were outscored by 10 points with him on the court.

The team fell behind by 11 points in the first quarter, and its guard trio of Maxey, De'Anthony Melton and Shake Milton combined to begin 1 for 11 from the floor. Whatever Rivers did at center, it was obvious the Sixers needed much more perimeter production to earn a shorthanded win. While Maxey ultimately provided that, Melton finished 3 for 12 from the field and Milton was 0 for 7.

The Sixers did eventually feature small ball when they subbed Georges Niang in for Dedmon and played Tucker at center. While Tucker’s physicality was a plus on Jokic, the two-time MVP focused on facilitating in the first half and did that very well. Jokic only took four first-half field goals, but he racked up nine assists, including an alley-oop to Aaron Gordon on Denver’s final possession of the second quarter. If a teammate is open, Jokic does not miss him. He reached his 29th triple-double of the season in the third quarter.

Memories of seven-man Sixers 

Maxey torched the Nuggets in the second quarter.


He posted 20 points in the period, the 22-year-old’s high for any quarter in his NBA career. Maxey sped into the lane and showed off his polished layup package over and over again, capitalizing on favorable matchups, fast-break chances, and anything else that hinted at him being able to drive downhill. In addition to the results, Maxey’s approach was fantastic; he was relentless and constantly eager to punish Nuggets lapses.

Maxey’s second quarter was reminiscent of his 39-point performance as a rookie for the seven-man Sixers against Denver. Reed also showed how he’s developed the tools he flashed on that strange day. 

Energy and hustle have always been foundational for Reed, but he displayed offensive skills Monday, too. While Reed avoided anything wild, he justifiably trusted himself at times. He took a baseline jumper, went coast to coast for an and-one layup, and scored inside with his left hand. Everything went in. Reed had 16 points on 7-for-7 shooting, nine rebounds, two steals and a block. Especially given his recent progress playing alongside Harden, Reed has made it clear he again deserves playoff minutes.

Deep subs push back

The Sixers curiously did not run their offense through Maxey much at the start of the second half. He also missed his first three field goals of the third quarter and had just two points in the period.


The Nuggets began to score regularly in transition against a Sixers team that looked worn down in the last leg of an especially travel-heavy stretch. They went on a 22-2 run.

Undermanned teams like the Sixers can rarely afford that serious of a rough patch. Sure enough, the game seemed over when Rivers turned to deep bench players such as Jaden Springer, Montrezl Harrell and Furkan Korkmaz in the middle of the fourth quarter.

The Nuggets stuck with their main guys. At one point, it would've been fair to wonder if Denver head coach Michael Malone should've pulled his top players and eliminated all injury risks for the Western Conference's No. 1 seed. That notion evaporated quickly, though. Improbably, the Sixers made a comeback push.

Korkmaz converted a lefty reverse layup, Springer hit two free throws, and Jalen McDaniels snuck in to steal the ball from Jokic before taking off for a fast-break dunk that cut the Sixers' deficit to six points. A Harrell put-back dunk trimmed Denver's lead to 114-111. The Nuggets somewhat put themselves in that position through turnovers and casual defense, but the Sixers' effort was still exceptional.


Frustratingly, the Sixers did not get an opportunity to tie the game.

McDaniels was called for a foul on Green with 13.3 seconds left, which Rivers challenged. Replays appeared to show Green's foot was on the baseline when he caught the ball, but the officials ruled the challenge of the foul call unsuccessful and Green made his free throws to finally ice the game for Denver.