Monday night in the NBA featured a marquee matchup between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Denver Nuggets.
Both teams had 40+ wins and are near locks for the playoffs.
The matchup did not disappoint.
On the second night of a back-to-back, Embiid outplayed Jokic for most of the time they shared the court.
Embiid had 34 points on 11-20 from the field, 3-3 from deep, and 9-10 from the line while adding on 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocks.
Jokic was no slouch himself, putting up 22 points on 8-16 from the field, 1-3 from deep, and 5-7 from the line while adding 13 rebounds, 8 assists, and 2 blocks.
Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid tonight:
Jokic: 22 Points, 13 Rebounds, 8 Assists, 50% FG
Embiid: 34 Points, 9 Rebounds, 4 Assists, 55% FG
Nuggets Win. pic.twitter.com/UWo7xT7HIL
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) March 15, 2022
Both stat lines are impressive, but Embiid seemed to have the upper hand in the head-to-head matchup.
However, the main storyline did not involve either MVP hopeful.
Instead, the game was decided by the benches, with the Denver bench thoroughly outplaying the Philly bench.
And in the end, it cost Philly, as the Nuggets outscored them by 11 in the fourth quarter to earn a 114-111 win.
76ers Bench Struggled Mightily
A common theme with Philadelphia teams in recent seasons once again reared its ugly head against the Denver – poor bench play.
The Philadelphia starters were excellent, combining for 96 points on 32-60 shooting and 9-20 from three.
If the starters could have played all 48 minutes, the 76ers probably win that game easily.
But Tom Thibodeau is not the coach of this team, so the starters did not play the entire game.
Niang and Green have been the two most consistent bench contributors for the 76ers this season.
But last night, they were no-shows.
Green, in his first game back after suffering a finger laceration a week ago, missed all five of his field-goal attempts.
Niang, who has had a strong recent stretch of play, went just 2-12 from the field, including 2-10 from deep.
One of those misses included a corner three with approximately six seconds remaining that would have tied the game.
Niang missed another corner 3 that would have tied the game and the Sixers lose 114-110, despite a 34 point, 9 rebound, 4 assist performance from Joel Embiid. Harden had 24 and 11 assists. The Sixers bench combined for 14 points on 4-24 shooting.
— Derek Bodner (@DerekBodnerNBA) March 15, 2022
Weak bench play was the main reason for the loss Monday night but has been a problem for the 76ers for a while.
A lack of even average play from the backup center has haunted Philly in every playoff series Embiid has played in.
Andre Drummond was seemingly the answer this season but was included in the Simmons-for-Harden trade.
Doc Rivers needs to find the answer on the correct combination of bench players come playoff time.
Otherwise, Philly will be facing another early exit.
Answers Moving Forward?
It will be interesting to see what Rivers does over these next 15 games before the playoffs.
He seems committed to using Jordan as the backup big, but his play through four games has not inspired confidence.
From Doc Rivers:
-Embiid asked to sub out about four mins into game, which he hadn’t done before. Led to rotation changes
-Team didn’t get into second actions enough late
-DeAndre Jordan’s been “great” overall
-Thybulle must be “dynamic defensively” to be on floor
— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) March 15, 2022
Outside of the blowout to the Brooklyn Nets, Jordan has been a net neutral or negative during his minutes on the court.
His box +/- numbers and the corresponding game result are as follows:
- +0 vs Chicago Bulls (121-106 win)
- +1 vs Brooklyn Nets (129-100 loss)
- -9 vs Orlando Magic (116-114 win)
- -5 vs Denver Nuggets (114-110 loss)
Box +/- is not the best stat to go off, but along with context, one can start to paint a picture.
Jordan lacks the ability to move laterally and is no longer the interior defensive presence he once was.
His athleticism is not what it used to be which hinders his ability to be the rim-running center his role requires him to play next to Harden.
The backup center would, for most coaches, be the only spot left to be determined come playoff time.
Typically, playoff rotations shrink to eight players – the starting five plus the three best reserves.
In the case of the Sixers, two of those spots are taken by Niang and Green.
But Rivers infamously did not shrink his rotations in last year’s playoffs.
If he keeps his rotations, who are the ninth and tenth guys off the bench?
It will be on Rivers to discover who those guys are.