In a much anticipated matchup, the Denver Nuggets dropped Tuesday night’s game to the Philadelphia 76ers 126-121, losing the fourth quarter 27-17.

Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, the two best centers in the NBA, did battle in much the same way they have done in previous matchups. There were times when they guarded each other, but the vast majority if the time, Embiid guarded Aaron Gordon and Jokic guarded either Kelly Oubre or Nicolas Batum. Both teams almost immediately conceded that neither big man could guard the other, and that led to some interesting choices from the Nuggets and Sixers defenses.

Jokic had a unique stat line with 25 points, 19 rebounds (including a career high 11 offensive rebounds), and only three assists. The Sixers junked up the game by having Batum switch between Jokic and Murray, and he did a fantastic job, despite Jokic’s stat line.

Ultimately though, Embiid got the better of the matchup once again, scoring 41 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and dishing out 10 assists, an impressive stat line as the Nuggets mixed in double teams and combo zone looks on the weak side. Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, who had 25 points and nine assists himself, picked apart Denver’s defense and made Denver pay for leaving perimeter shooters wide open. Embiid handled the pressure extremely well, getting to the free throw line 15 times and playing an efficient brand of basketball.

The Sixers shot 15-of-31 from three and went to the free throw line 34 times as a team. The Nuggets couldn’t guard them at all, and that really hurt Denver’s chances when the fourth quarter rolled around. The Nuggets struggled late in the game to generate efficient offense, and Jamal Murray, who played a strong first three quarters, really struggled to create good looks for himself and others. Murray went 0-of-4 from the field and had one assist to two turnovers. Patrick Beverley and Nic Batum both made a difference guarding him, playing physical defense and disrupting what he wanted to do. While Murray wasn’t the only one to struggle in the quarter, he controls most of Denver’s possessions when he’s out there, and it affected Denver’s offense as a whole.

The Sixers didn’t have the same scoring issues as the Nuggets in the fourth quarter. Tobias Harris scored eight points in the frame, and when Embiid reentered the game, he scored 11 points, hitting jumpers in isolation and drawing fouls for free throws. The Nuggets didn’t have another guy outside of Murray to go to like that when Murray didn’t have it, and the Nuggets couldn’t rekindle the momentum and pace necessary to generate good shots. Jokic tried, and Porter hit a late three, but the Nuggets simply didn’t have enough.

 It’s tough for this to be the way the game goes, but sometimes, it happens. Denver got stuck on the tarmac yesterday for five hours waiting to take off from Denver to Philadelphia. Could that have affected Denver’s legs in the fourth quarter? Who knows. It’s not an excuse that Denver will use, nor should they. Things happen, and the Nuggets needed to play better as a group. They needed to be more locked in to rotations defensively and simply weren’t. It’s been a while since the Nuggets have played a defense like that, but they may have to in a playoff matchup. This is practice for that, and the Nuggets failed the test defensively in spectacular fashion.

Where Denver has to learn from this one is the Murray stagger with the bench. It’s simply not working. Before tonight, the Nuggets were averaging a -22.3 Net Rating in the minutes when Murray plays and Jokic sits. That’s just unacceptable as a unit, and it implies that staggering Murray with the bench group may not be what’s best for the Nuggets as a team this year. Reggie Jackson is a scoring point guard who can run pick and roll. Perhaps staggering Michael Porter Jr. or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope makes more sense, if only because it maximizes Jackson’s minutes running the second unit and maximizes the Jokic-Murray duo that continues to shred defenses apart.

Will the Nuggets go away from the Murray stagger? Probably not. Murray’s a great player, the second best player on the team, and usually great teams stagger their top two players. Still, food for thought after the Nuggets lost this game with the Nuggets winning Jokic’s minutes against Embiid by exactly one point. They lost the other 10 minutes by six points. That was the difference in the game.

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