Nuggets coach Michael Malone always warns against these games.
The games against teams with a worse record than the Nuggets. The games against teams supposedly tired, coming into Denver on the second of a back-to-back. The games where injuries severely deplete the opponents’ roster.
Those are minefield games, the games a team is “supposed” to win. On Friday night, it was the game the Nuggets did not win. Philadelphia rolled into the Pepsi Center and put on a 3-point shooting show in a 124-122 win over the Nuggets.
“I think when you win a few games you start to feel pretty good about yourself and you forget why you’ve been winning games,” Malone said. “We’re not a team that can just show up.”
Both teams were productive from the arc, but the Sixers were borderline unconscious from the arc, nailing 3-pointers left and right until they reached 16 on the night. Not only did they hit that many, which was just short of a season high for a Nuggets opponent, but they hit a big percentage of them – 48.5 percent to be exact.
And with that as the foundation, the Nuggets never could quite catch and pass the Sixers. Philadelphia never led by more than 10 points, but they were almost always leading. The Nuggets tried to counter with 3-point shooting of their own (11-of-27), but 33 points at the arc did not trump 48.
“Our defense was nonexistent tonight,” Malone said.
The Nuggets made game of it down the stretch, however, cutting the lead to one point (114-113) on a Wilson Chandler jump shot with 1:44 remaining. But the Sixers answered with — what else? – a 3-pointer, made by T.J. McConnell, who had three treys as part of a big night with 17 points and eight assists.
But the game wound toward a photo finish. Nikola Jokic tied game at 117 with free throws with 49.4 seconds left in the game.
Joel Embiid made one of two free throws with 31.5 to play to put the Sixers back up by one. Embiid made it stand by stripping Jokic of the ball as he went up for a shot on the Nuggets ensuing possession, then got the ball and was fouled. He made both free throws, putting Philadelphia up 120-117.
The Nuggets opted to go for two right away and stretch the game out. Danilo Gallinari flew in for a dunk with 10.1 seconds to play to put the Nuggets down 120-119. Robert Covington was fouled and made two free throws to put the Philly lead back at three.
Then, Philadelphia did some fouling of its own. They hacked Jokic before the Nuggets could get up a 3-point shot. He made one of two — intentionally missing the second — but Philadelphia got possession of the ball. Two more Embiid free throws gave the Sixers a four-point lead that they did not relinquish.
“It’s hard to win any game doing that. We can’t just keep thinking we’re outscoring people,” guard Will Barton said. “We’ve got to take more pride in our defense.”
Embiid was the story down the stretch, making five straight free throws and making a big defensive play to keep the Sixers noses in front. It was the first time they’d won on the second of a back-to-back this season.
Jokic led all scorers with 25 points and seven rebounds. Emmanuel Mudiay finished with 22 points, five assists and four rebounds. Seven Nuggets were in double figures. Embiid and Ersan Ilyasova led the Sixers with 23 points apiece.