The Denver Nuggets scored 44 points in the first period Tuesday night at Ball Arena, then cruised to a 104-95 victory that dropped the Philadelphia 76ers to 32-15, 13-11 on the road.
To have a winning six-game road trip, the Sixers will need to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday.
“We just did not perform well,” head coach Doc Rivers said.
“Not a lot of excuses; we just didn’t. There’s so many areas where we were bad. For me to try to point out one would be unfair to the other bad areas. We just had an awful game. We haven’t had many of those, but tonight was one of them.”
Michael Porter Jr. (27 points, 12 rebounds), Jamal Murray (30 points) and Nikola Jokic (21 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) were standouts for the Nuggets.
For the Sixers, Tobias Harris had 12 points on six-for-13 shooting. Ben Simmons recorded 11 points on four-for-seven shooting, two rebounds, three assists, and three turnovers.
Here are three takeaways from the loss:
Dwight Howard started for the first time since January and posted six of the Sixers’ starting eight points. He slammed in two lobs off of pick-and-rolls and drew a foul when he flew for a dunk over Aaron Gordon.
Besides that however, hardly anything went right for the Sixers early. The Nuggets took a 28-12 lead on a Murray lefty layup.
The Nuggets were sharp offensively with Porter especially successful against Danny Green, and the Sixers helped them out with four turnovers that turned into six Denver points.
“Give them credit, they made some tough shots,” Harris said. “Also, they had easy looks. I thought we turned the ball over a little bit too much, especially in the first quarter, to have them get out in transition. They had too many points in transition in the first half. But defensively, they just didn’t feel us all night. We can call it whatever we want to call it — being tired, whatever it is. At the end of the day, it’s not who we are and we’ve got to change that. We paid for it tonight, for sure.”
Though Matisse Thybulle made two first-quarter three-pointers, the Sixers’ substitutes didn’t change much. The Porter-Murray duo outscored the Sixers’ entire team in the first, 30-22. Murray pull-ups, catch-and-shoot, Porter threes over shorter defenders, one-handed Jokic passes to open men when the Sixers sent double teams, it was all working for Denver.
Rebounding was another issue as the Nuggets grabbed 13 of the game’s first 17 boards. Part of that problem was Denver simply not providing many opportunities for defensive rebounds, but the Sixers generally can’t afford “alright” rebounding nights when Joel Embiid is out.
After only appearing in garbage time against the Lakers, Paul Reed checked into the game late in the first period. He had a couple of good sequences, however, he picked up his second foul when he flew out to Paul Millsap and couldn’t control his momentum as the veteran forward put up a three.
Fellow rookie Tyrese Maxey replaced Reed. Maxey couldn’t duplicate his 39-point performance in the Sixers’ Jan. 9 loss to the Nuggets, doing pretty much nothing in his scoreless four-minute stretch in the first half.
A small-ball, all-bench unit with Mike Scott at center and Maxey and Shake Milton (10 points, four assists) in the backcourt trimmed down a Denver lead once as large as 25 points and forced the Nuggets to keep their rotation players on the floor until the final buzzer. Maxey finished with 13 points on four-for-nine shooting in 16 minutes.
Limited impact by Simmons
Simmons only had five assists over his last two contests.
Before the game, Rivers said he’d liked what he’d seen recently from Simmons as a screener.
“We’ve been doing it all year, but he’s getting better at it each game,” he said. “It really depends on the matchups and where we want to use him. We don’t want him to just set picks when teams are switching all the time. We want him to set picks, especially against the smaller guys. I think it’s been more effective on Seth (Curry) actually, because they don’t want to switch that matchup. All we’re trying to do, really — obviously the guy with the ball, if he can get a shot — but what we’re trying to do is deliver it back to Ben in the middle of the paint, because he’s our best decision-maker. I think it’s a very difficult action to guard.”
Sixers opponents are not unaware to the threat Simmons presents. The Nuggets hogged a lot of ball screens, which opened up a few easy lob chances but also sometimes placed the Sixers’ ball handlers in uncomfortable positions.
“For me, I’ve just got to make a better play, better decision out of it,” Harris said. “They had (Jokic) up, so going forward that’s a play where you get the ball from one side to the other and make the big play for semi-blitzing up there. I thought we did it a couple times but not enough, especially in the beginning of the game. It’s a coverage that they use and it won’t be the last time we see that, in my opinion.”
Simmons spent more time watching the action happen from the dunker spot in this game than being impactful as a screener, roller and facilitator. He scored four of his points with the Nuggets leading by over 20 late in the third. While he had two steals, none of the Sixers’ individual defenders were very good in this game, Simmons included.
Tuesday night is not a serious concern in the grand scheme of things, though it’ll be interesting to see how Rivers uses Simmons in half-court offense when Embiid returns and trade deadline-day acquisition George Hill is healthy.
The now 32-15 will rap up their road trip against the 17-30 Cavaliers, seeking to have a winning road trip.