Nikola Jokić – C+
It was all going according to plan at the half. Jokić was in complete control of a game the Nuggets were dominating. The offense looked easy, and he’d found success guarding Joel Embiid. Everything was turning up Denver. But Doc Rivers’ chose to pull Embiid off of Jokić, deploying P.J. Tucker instead, allowing Embiid to roam and wreak havoc. It worked. For the first time in a long time, Jokić looked unsure how to handle a defense in the second half. He overthought his game from floater range. Too afraid to shoot. Too eager to find a target in the dunker spot. The offense dried up, and Jokić shrank down the stretch. On the other end of the floor, Denver had no answer for Embiid, who turned in a herculean second half. Jokić wasn’t just outplayed. He was dominated. It hasn’t gone down like that since well before his MVP era.
Jokić learns from his shortcomings. If you want to hunt for silver linings, consider Philly pulling an ace out of their sleeve for a January 28 matchup. In a seven-game series, Jokić would decipher the Tucker assignment. Of that, there’s little doubt. But on January 28, he came up well short with pride, narratives, and possibly an MVP award on the line.
Jamal Murray – C+
Jamal Murray went to the free-throw line to take a technical with Denver on the verge of blowing the game open. He bricked it and put his fingerprints all over the most painful 2-minute stretch of the season.
That stretch damned the Nuggets and damned Murray in the report card. He was close to playing well, but it all fell apart. Murray’s propensity to take his time setting up a possession reared its head, and his worst tendency—dribbling the air out of the ball—manifested at a suboptimal time. It was all compounded by a lack of focus on defense and the glass.
For all Murray does at an elite level, it never looks effortless for him. He makes the most of the back-against-the-wall possessions while getting so little out of what could be routine. We know what he can create out of thin air. But it’s taking what’s already there that stands between him and All-Star status. Less can be more.
Michael Porter Jr. – A-
Porter didn’t have to come back for this game. He didn’t have to make his return to a Saturday showcase game on ABC featuring the two best bigs in the world. It was a game with pride on the line, and Porter showed some by not just checking in but playing well in Philly. MPJ was an essential factor in the first-half success and played little role in the second-half disaster class. If anything, he should have played more. Both Porter and Aaron Gordon logged under thirty minutes, which is curious considering the sell job on display from Jeff Green. Porter earned those minutes, and it’s a shame how out of rhythm he was by the time the ball found him for a clutch three opportunity late in the game. He missed the shot, and that’s on him, but how a player like that could go so long without meaningful touches is beyond me. Regardless of how we divvy the blame — the guards, the staff, and Porter himself need to address this dynamic.
Aaron Gordon – B+
AG played well but factored into the comeback via Rivers’ willingness to concede a potential perimeter threat. Embiid switched to Gordon in the second half, and Denver had no counter. He mostly hung out near the arc. We don’t need Sherlock Holmes to deduce what went wrong and how Denver can prepare itself for future success. It’s all about finding appropriate counters for that one massive adjustment. Still, as far as what Gordon could control, most of it went well. He and Porter both played how you’d hope important role players would in this game. It’s bizarre that neither of them cracked thirty minutes.
Kentavious Caldwell Pope – B+
Pope impacted this matchup how you hoped he would. While James Harden knocked down some big shots, Pope helped take some easy offense away from him. It was a far cry from the way Harden used to snatch Denver’s souls in a Rockets uniform. Pope knocked down 2 of 4 attempts from deep, grabbed five rebounds, dished four assists, recorded three steals, and did not turn the ball over.
Bones Hyland – C
Bones took an admirable approach in the first half and even contributed on defense initially. His head was in the contest, but he couldn’t knock down his 3s. Each one felt a touch more desperate than the last. He finished 1 of 6 from a distance. The defense fell off a cliff before the game was over, too.
Bruce Brown – C+
Brown played hard but didn’t produce in Philly. He played a little out of control and probably hurt more than he helped offensively. Suboptimal performances happen. They’re hard to swallow but tenable. At least the Brown criticisms aren’t effort related.
Jeff Green – F
Green might’ve cared about this game, but there’s no way of knowing that when watching the tape. He didn’t defend. He didn’t fight for rebounds. He didn’t do much of anything. Again, poor performances happen from role players. But in Green’s case, so much of it looked effort related. How is this ok on a roster featuring Michael Porter Jr. and Vlatko Čančar? The former is chastised and penalized for every lapse of focus. The latter is desperate to play and compete at a high level. What message is that sending?
Zeke Nnaji – D+
A brief experiment with Nnaji minutes revealed he couldn’t guard Embiid. Go figure.