By Jerry Wein
The Joel Embiid-less Sixers have hit a wall.
After winning six of seven without their star center, who injured his knee on March 12, Philly has lost two in a row.
Jamal Murray scored 30 points and Michael Porter Jr. 27 and the Denver Nuggets ran over the Sixers 104-95.
Nikola Jokic added 21 points for the Nuggets, who played in front of a home crowd for the first time since the pandemic shut down the 2019-20 season in mid-March of last year.
The 76ers’ backups made a late run to turn the blowout into a contest.
Reserve Tyrese Maxey led the Sixers with 13 points, all in the fourth quarter.
The much-anticipated matchup between the East-leading Sixers and the rejuvenated Nuggets, who made the biggest headlines at the trade deadline with the additions of Aaron Gordon and JaVale McGee, quickly fizzled with Denver’s first-quarter flourish.
Before the Nuggets took a 68-45 lead into the locker room, Jokic stepped up to the free throw line and was met by chants of “MVP! MVP! MVP!” from the first crowd at Ball Arena since the pandemic shut down the 2019-20 season more than a year ago.
The crowd consisted of employees of Kroenke Sports and Entertainment and healthcare professionals who have been on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.
Denver coach Michael Malone welcomed the rowdies back to the arena formerly known as the Pepsi Center, normally one of the loudest venues in the NBA. He said he was glad to have family watch them in person for the first time since last March.
“The fact that we are inviting front-line workers is a tremendous gesture,” Malone said with a shoutout to the work “these frontline workers have been doing on a daily basis to help fight COVID and all the damage it has inflected upon us as a city, a state, a country and all across the world.”
The 76ers’ backups closed the third quarter on a 10-2 run and kept up the pressure in the fourth, finally chipping the deficit below double digits in the final minute while Philly’s starters cheered them on.
“Well, the positive is that the clock finally expired,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “That was one very good positive, because I was hoping they would do the AAU rules and just keep the clock (running). I thought we should have had a running clock from the first quarter on.”
The Nuggets savored the closer-than-it-needed-to-be victory.
“It was so fun,” Porter said of hearing the crowd cheering in Denver again. “We missed that energy from the crowd. It’s just good to have fans back in the building. We were having to create our own energy.
“It’s good to see things starting to get back to a little normal.”