Preview: Nuggets seek turnaround vs. Sixers in Philadelphia

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Nuggets (14-7) are hoping to finish their East Coast trip with a win, but they face the daunting task of beating the Philadelphia 76ers (17-7) at Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers have the best home record in the NBA at 12-0 and are winning by an average of 13.3 points a game in their arena. Despite all those factors, it is crucial for morale and momentum for the Nuggets to avoid dropping a third-straight contest. Michael Malone’s team has lost four of its last five games and has fallen from second to fourth place in the Western Conference.

Philadelphia enters Tuesday’s game on a two-game win streak and has won eight of its last 10. The team’s last two victories have been impressive as it put up 141 points against the Cavs in a 47-point triumph and downed the Raptors, one of the hottest teams in the East, 110-104.

Although Denver is in on a two-game skid, there’s been some encouraging signs on its road trip. Nikola Jokić is playing some of his best basketball of the season, looking confident and assertive on the court. In his last three games, the center is averaging 20 points, 10.3 rebounds and shooting 53.1 percent. Jerami Grant had one of his top performances as a Nugget in the loss against Brooklyn, hitting five threes en route to 15 points. The key for the Nuggets to steal a win in Philly will be having a complete showing on both sides of the floor. At times, it seems like they excel in one area and struggle on the other side of the court.

Tuesday’s matchup will conclude the season series with Philadelphia. Denver sealed one of its best wins of the season against the 76ers as it completed a franchise regular-season record fourth quarter 19-point comeback to secure a victory at Pepsi Center. Malone and his players will hope for a similar outcome at Philadelphia, a place where they haven’t won in their last two tries.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

TUNE IN: 6 p.m. MT, TV: TNT, ALTITUDE, RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM/950AM

Here are three storylines to follow:

Nikola Jokić vs. Joel Embiid Round 5

Jokić and Embiid have played each other four times and although Denver is 1-3 in those games, the matchup has been tightly contested in all games.

Here are the stats for both men, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Jokić: 31.5 mpg, .479 FG, .250 3-pt, 23 ppg, 8.5 RPG, 0.8 ppg, 6.0 APG, 2.3 TOPG, 3.8 PFPG

Embiid: 29.4 mpg, .356 FG, .200 3-pt, 19.5 ppg, 11.5 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 2.5 APG, 5.3 TOPG, 5.0 PFPG

For a player who isn’t known for his defensive acumen, Jokić has more than held his own against Embiid. Some of that is down to positional awareness and not giving the Sixers’ All-NBA Second Team center much space to operate. Embiid is a career 71.4 percent shooter when it comes to shots within three feet from the basket. Against the Nuggets on Nov. 8, he shot 3-of-9 within that range. The Nuggets will need more of the same Tuesday.  

Transition and interior defense needs to improve

The Nuggets have been the NBA’s top-rated defensive team for most of this season, so their showing in Brooklyn is a bit head-scratching and hopefully an outlier.

Denver did a great job of limiting Brooklyn from downtown, an area it usually thrives in (sixth in the NBA in made threes per game), but had no answers in the paint for the home team. The Nets shot 7-of-28 from downtown but outscored the Nuggets 66-22 in points in the paint, a margin that’s impossible to secure a win with. The Nuggets have to ensure that doesn’t become a trend against the Sixers, one of the better teams in the league in scoring in the paint.

Philadelphia currently sits 12th in that category with 48.3 points per game, but in its last three games, its averaged 58.0 points – fourth in the NBA in that span. Before the losses against the Celtics and Nets, the Nuggets were 11th in the league in containing points in the paint (47.3). They’ve slipped to 19th  (48.5) entering Tuesday’s game.

Point guard battle

The matchup at center isn’t the only marquee positional battle in Tuesday’s nationally-televised game. Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray is going up against all-star Ben Simmons should also be entertaining.

Simmons missed the last contest between the two teams with a shoulder injury, so this is the only time the Nuggets will see him in action during the regular season. The 6-foot-10 point playmaker is a matchup nightmare and is currently averaging 14.3 points, 8.5 assists and 6.9 boards this season. The key to stopping Simmons is keeping him out of the paint. The Nuggets allowed Spencer Dinwiddie to score all of his 24 points within 10 feet of the rim. Simmons almost exclusively lives in that area and isn’t the shooter Dinwiddie is.

Last season, Murray more than held his own against Simmons in the one game they faced each other on Feb. 08, Murray went for 23 points, six assists and five rebounds while Simmons had 12 points, six assists and four rebounds along with nine turnovers. Although the Sixers won 117-110, the Nuggets could point to the absences of starters Gary Harris and Paul Millsap as part of the reason they couldn’t pull off the win. With a full contingent, things could look different this time around.

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