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January 28, 2023

Instant observations: Joel Embiid delivers masterpiece in win over Nuggets

The Sixers are firmly near the top of the Eastern Conference.

Joel Embiid took one of the best players in the NBA and tossed him aside, leading the Sixers to a 126-119 win over Denver to make his strongest argument yet for MVP.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The start of this game was a great example of Embiid focusing a little too much on the personal battle and, more importantly, the foul game. On the first possession of the game, Embiid went right at Nikola Jokic and drew a foul on Denver's all-world big man, scoring a shot off of the glass in the process. It was what happened from there that derailed the start of the game — instead of following that blueprint and expecting that fouls would naturally follow, Embiid tried to do a bit too much grifting, taking himself (and the team) out of rhythm in the process.

I'm no admirer of Jokic as a defensive player, but Embiid did allow Jokic to weaponize his strengths on that end for much of the first half, with Embiid showing noteworthy hesitation on some midrange shots as Jokic leaned on him and swiped at the ball as he went up for shot attempts. Denver got out to a double-digit lead early with Philly sputtering on offense, and the big man played a part in that.

But, well, turns out Embiid didn't forget how to play basketball. And as Denver went to their bench, Embiid finally stopped worrying so much about the individual matchup and got back to playing basketball. He was a runaway freight train from that point onward.

From around the start of the second quarter onward, Embiid was simply ridiculous on offense. He gave the Nuggets just about everything in his bag — midrange jumpers out of the pick-and-roll, trail threes with Jokic dropping too far back, and attacks directed right at Jokic's chest. His dunk on Jokic in the third quarter, where he blew past Jokic and then went underneath the rim for a reverse, is one of his highlights of the season to date:

Frankly, Embiid had more of a Jokic-esque game than Jokic did. It was Embiid who was dominant on the glass, grabbing nearly every available board the Nuggets allowed him to get a chance at. Embiid was sitting on 16 rebounds at a point in the game when the Nuggets had only missed 22 shots, and even if you wipe the offensive boards out of that, his personal total was a comical portion of the available rebounds. His final line, 47-18-5, is absolutely preposterous.

When the game was hanging in the balance late and someone had to step up and decide it, this wasn't much more complicated than a one-on-one battle between Embiid and the guy who beat him out for the last two MVP awards. You feel sympathy for Jokic, honestly, because it wasn't as though he played bad defense against Embiid. But he was a victim of the playbook Philadelphia has run all year, with Embiid and Harden running their two-man weave in the middle of the floor, the big man finishing possession after possession with beautiful, lofted jumpers over outstretched arms.

Carrying the team on offense, Embiid somehow managed to summon a little bit of extra juice on defense, too, making a hellacious block at the rim in the midst of his superstar run late in the fourth quarter. 

He was the clear best player of the floor the entire run, and sometimes, it's as simple as that in a basketball game. Statement effort of the year, and perhaps his career. 

• This was a relatively quiet afternoon for James Harden in the scoring department, and he was bad as anybody on the floor defensively, flailing at entry passes and back cuts like the guard version of Jahlil Okafor. Gross!

On the other hand, Harden's floor reads were about as good as it gets on offense. He left Denver flummoxed throughout the night, picking apart double teams with ease and constantly getting Embiid the ball at his money spots. And when Denver shaded the extra attention toward Embiid, or Jokic dropped back too far in pick-and-roll defense, Harden was a willing (and capable) scorer, living up to his end of the bargain.

They brought this guy here to make all of the important decisions in crunch time, and he has excelled in that role lately. They are starting to look like the title contender we all believed they could be, and much of it hinges on how good Harden has been.

• Understated, ultra-impactful performance from Tobias Harris. Key shots in the third quarter, big plays on defense in the fourth, I did not have anywhere near enough time to write about his performance. But he was great. 

• As the foremost Matisse Thybulle skeptic on the Sixers beat — at the very least tied for first — there's basically no reason to glue him to the bench as they have at times this season. P.J Tucker is mostly a zero on offense, and we have certainly seen teams ignore him the same way they have Mr. Thybulle (most noticeably in a blowout loss against the Cavs). For whatever issues I have with Thybulle, he is at least bringing some dynamism to the floor. Scatterbrained though he can be, he's a chaos creator, and they needed a big dose of that on Saturday.

The Nuggets are a team that almost necessitates somebody like Thybulle — they thrive on off-ball movement and cutting, and he is at his best jumping into those lanes to break up plays. He's also uniquely suited to guard Jamal Murray, someone who pokes and prods and darts around screens, working give-and-go plays with Jokic where you never know who is going to finish off the play. More than most guys on the roster, Thybulle looked the part for this game. Denver has a better cabinet of athletes than the Sixers do, and Thybulle helped them level the playing field.

There were at least a couple of possessions that Thybulle snatched out of Denver's hands, game-changing plays on a night where it was tough to create a miss for Philly. Really good minutes from him. 

• Start thinking about a number that would be too high for Niang to get in free agency this offseason, because I don't think his contributions are going to be taken for granted around the league. I know this is far from true, but it feels like he hits multiple threes during every big Sixers run. He's a massive swing player coming off of the bench and one of the league's best bench shooters at the moment. We are certainly not the only people noticing. 

His shot early in the fourth quarter, basically falling out of bounds as he released it at the end of the shot clock, is one of the more absurd makes any Sixer has had all season. 

• Late in the first half, Doc Rivers switched the matchups to put Tucker on Jokic and Embiid on Aaron Gordon for a few possessions. At the time, it looked like a ploy to avoid Embiid picking up a third foul without taking him out of the game, a reasonable enough choice to make. But the Sixers went back to that well after halftime, and it allowed them to creep back into the game a bit in the third quarter, and eventually deliver a killing blow late.

Throwing different looks at a team and taking them out of rhythm — good, it turns out.  Tucker was awesome against Jokic late in the game, and situational basketball like that is why they brought him here. 

The Bad

• Philadelphia winning games and getting MVP-level play out of Embiid has covered for the severe defensive slide they've been on. On Wednesday night, the Brooklyn Nets managed to put together the third-best shooting effort in a loss in the history of the NBA. On Saturday, the Nuggets had a heater of their own, tearing up the Sixers and building a comfortable lead in the process.

It's not as simple as saying "This guy was bad" or "He's a defensive weak link" because, in the immortal words of Jason Kelce, it was the whole damn team. The best defenses are constantly on a string, shifting and restructuring on the fly as if they are one living, breathing organism. At the moment, Philadelphia looks closer to a headless chicken, running around in circles with blood spurting out of the neck hole where their brain and beak used to be.

There are definitely personnel-based problems to work around, but a few of those are self-inflicted. I don't think Bball Paul vs. Nikola Jokic is a matchup that works for the Sixers, but I'm not sure how you come into this game planning to have Montrezl Harrell compete with the back-to-back MVP. Harrell is a bad individual defender, a bad team defender, and someone who Jokic can (and did) punish as both a scorer and playmaker. And this is not something we're all learning in 2023 — you could make the case that Doc Rivers was fired in L.A. precisely because he died on the Harrell hill against Denver in the playoffs. Watching Harrell botch screens, get bodied by the bigger player, and repeat years-old mistakes had to be infuriating for any Sixers fans watching the game.

But that's just piling on easy targets, honestly. Why is Embiid letting Jokic blow by him on a cut in the final 10 seconds of a half? Why is De'Anthony Melton not a better on-ball defender if you're going to bump him into the starting group for the extra juice he gives you there? Why are guys failing to make the most basic switches or misunderstanding matchups? Harrell doubling Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and conceding a wide-open three to Jokic is the sort of braindead play that there is no excuse to make. Not in the first quarter, not with tired legs in the fourth, not ever. 

If the Sixers don't fix their current defensive woes, it doesn't matter if they finish the season as the greatest offense of all time, or if Embiid scores 40 points per game. This is not good enough, period. 

The Ugly

• Shake Milton and Embiid looked on the verge of fighting each other in the bubble a few years back, so he's no stranger to in-game confrontations with teammates. That said, there was a heated moment between Milton and Georges Niang in the first half, with Niang reacting dramatically on a transition possession where Milton refused to pass him the ball.

Terrible play by Milton, but honestly, I have more beef with Niang and his theatrics on the play.  No need to show up a teammate like that, no matter how bad the play is

• 3 p.m. tip-off: amazing

3 p.m. kids day promotions during the game: not amazing.

(I know, I know, cranky sports writer is not the target audience here.)

• Enough with the kicked balls, man. Every three kicked balls should be a point for the other team. Enough already!

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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