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How an adjustment from Doc Rivers neutralized Nikola Jokic

Harrison Wind Avatar
January 29, 2023

Five takeaways from the Nuggets’ 126-119 loss to the 76ers.

Where the 76ers really won this game

Joel Embiid was incredible and dominated the Nuggets and Nikola Jokic. More on him later. But the 76ers won this game thanks to a second-half coaching adjustment from Doc Rivers.

After Embiid guarded Jokic in the first half and Jokic tallied 16 points on 6-7 shooting, Rivers switched PJ Tucker onto Jokic to open the third quarter. It was an adjustment that looked like it confused Jokic, which doesn’t happen often, and threw the Nuggets off their offensive rhythm. Jokic scored only eight points on 2-5 shooting across 20 second-half minutes. He handed out four assists to six turnovers. He was completely neutralized. In the fourth quarter, Jokic was held to two shot attempts.

Watch this three-possession sequence from the fourth quarter. It gives you an idea of how Tucker took Jokic out of the game.

Jamal Murray didn’t even look to get Jokic, who’s guarded by Tucker at the 3-point line, the ball on this possession. Jokic doesn’t look like he wants it either. Denver didn’t even look the back-to-back MVP’s way. This was after Tucker had some strong defensive possession vs. Jokic earlier in the half.

On the Nuggets’ next trip down the floor, Jokic gets the mismatch on Tobias Harris but doesn’t even try him. He skips it to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (on a good read), who was open. But Caldwell-Pope only gets a tough mid-range pull-up out of it.

Denver then goes to Jokic in the post on Tucker, but Tucker slaps the ball loose. It results in a turnover.

Tucker is a strong and sturdy defender. He’s only 6-foot-6 but has enough girth to make it extremely difficult for Jokic to post up. He’s a dog, and someone you’d love on your team in the playoffs. But he shouldn’t be able to eliminate Jokic like he did in the second half.

Tucker on Jokic felt like an adjustment that the Nuggets had no idea was coming or could come from the 76ers. Because Denver had no answer. The Nuggets were definitely not prepared for it. After scoring 73 points in the first half, Denver only put up 46 in the second.

It sucks losing to the 76ers. It really sucks losing because of a coaching adjustment from Rivers, who has looked inept against the Nuggets in the past.

Embiid’s Super Bowl

This game was touted as Embiid’s Super Bowl in the lead-up, and that’s exactly how he approached Saturday’s matchup. Embiid was a beast in this one. He finished with 47 points on 18-31 shooting. He hit 4-of-7 3s. He dribbled right past Jokic for a monster reverse dunk late in the third quarter. He nailed the dagger, step-back triple in Jokic’s eye to seal the 76ers’ win late in the fourth. He peppered Jokic and the Nuggets with jumper after jumper from the mid-range throughout his 38 minutes. It was his night.

Jokic had no answer, and that’s what was disappointing about his night to me. It just felt like he didn’t want the smoke in this one. We’ve seen Jokic take over so many games in the past when the moment called for it. He just couldn’t get there Saturday despite outplaying Embiid in the first half. Whether it was the Tucker matchup or something else, Jokic didn’t have the extra gear that Embiid played in throughout the entire second half.

Defending Embiid has been impossible this season. He is the NBA’s leading scorer at 33.4 points per game after all. Forcing him to take jumpers — Embiid went 11-19 on jump shots vs. Denver — is the right defensive strategy. It’s just going to be really tough to beat him when he’s hitting like that. Tip of the cap.

A 3rd quarter collapse

The Nuggets led this game by 15 points, 99-84, with 1:59 left in the third as Murray stepped to the line to shoot a technical free-throw. He missed, and the 76ers went on a 12-0 run in two minutes to end the quarter. It happened real fast.

Murray was not good during this stretch.

This possession was a stinker. Murray was bothered by Matisse Thybulle’s length, which caused him to pass up two-straight looks — a baseline mid-range jumper and right wing 3 — and then dribbled the air out of the ball for the rest of the shot clock.

Then Murray committed this offensive foul, which was definitely an offensive foul.

Then this Bruce Brown brain fart. For some reason, he contested and clearly fouled Embiid at the third-quarter buzzer. Embiid hit all three free-throws. A super low-IQ play from Brown.

Murray shot 2-7 in the second half and the Nuggets were outscored by 24 points in the 21 minutes he was on the floor. The late-third to early-fourth quarter was a stretch of the game when the Nuggets needed Murray to carry the bench minutes. He couldn’t deliver.

The bench and the upcoming trade deadline

The Nuggets’ second unit held it together in the first half but played a central role in Denver’s second-half and end-of-third-quarter collapse. That group didn’t inspire a ton of confidence when they were on the floor throughout most of this game.

Here’s the thing. I felt like Michael Malone played this matchup at times like a playoff game. The environment in Philly certainly made it feel like one too. Jokic played the entire first and third quarters. Murray logged 39 minutes. And if I’m Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth, I wouldn’t feel great about how my second unit looked and how those bench minutes went in a postseason-like setting.

Bruce Brown, Bones Hyland, Zeke Nnaji and Jeff Green.

Do you feel confident if those are your four guys off the bench in the playoffs? I don’t. Denver might need a trade, or to play Vlatko Cancar, just to get someone minutes who adds a different dynamic to the second unit.

Jeff Green

I gotta call out Green for his play in Philly. It was…uninspiring, to say the least. We joke all the time that Green operates at one speed. He has one mode. He plays the same whether it’s a Tuesday night vs. Detroit or a Saturday, nationally televised game on ABC. Sometimes that’s a good thing. You always know what you’re getting from him. In a game like this one, it wasn’t.

He’s got to raise his energy and engagement levels in games like this. The 76ers had 12 offensive rebounds in this game. Four of them came in Green’s direct vicinity. He’s got to give more energy than this if he’s going to be playing in the playoffs.

If this is all Green has, Malone either needs to play Cancar or the Nuggets need to make a trade for someone else who’s going to bring some fire. We know Christian Braun’s not going to be in this rotation when Denver is at full health.


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