Sunday afternoon’s NFC Conference Championship game between the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco is the main course for a huge sports weekend in the City of Brotherly Love. However, one day earlier, a contest between two of the top teams in the NBA, and the top-two players in MVP voting each of the last two seasons, makes for a delectable appetizer. The Denver Nuggets enter play leading the Western Conference with a 34-15 record, while the Philadelphia 76ers are riding a six-game winning streak that has seen them rise to second in the East. It’s the first of two contests between the clubs this season, with the game in Denver scheduled for late March.
Both teams come in well-rested as the NBA schedule makers tried to ensure it would be all hands on deck for their Saturday afternoon broadcast on ABC. The Nuggets and Sixers both last played on Wednesday night. Denver sat a lot of key guys in their loss then to Milwaukee, as it was the second night of a back-to-back. Nikola Jokic missed a couple games last week with a hamstring injury, returned to play on Tuesday, then sat Wednesday against the Bucks. Jamal Murray (knee), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (wrist) and Michael Porter Jr. (personal) also took the night off; it was the third straight game Porter has missed.
Meanwhile, it’s the second straight game where Sixers star Joel Embiid might be looking to make a statement. He definitely seemed to be forcing the issue at times on Wednesday in his first game against former teammate Ben Simmons and the Nets. While the Sixers secured the win, it was one of Joel’s less efficient games on the season.
Of course, now playing Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets presents its own history for the big man, with the Serbian star beating out Embiid for MVP the last two seasons. Joel might also be feeling extra miffed about just being left off as an All-Star starter, despite currently leading the league in scoring. Last year, the March game between these clubs, which Denver won, 114-110, seemed to become a referendum on the MVP race in many voters’ minds, something Embiid may also recall. It will be important for him to play his usual, dominant style of play and not try to play hero ball this afternoon.
The Nuggets are more than Jokic, though, as you would expect for a team leading their conference. Jamal Murray is back from his torn ACL and averaging 19.1 points and 5.7 assists per game. Aaron Gordon might be having his best season as a pro, averaging 16.8 points on career-best marks of 57.4 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from three. He has been getting a lot of buzz to make his first All-Star weekend as a player, and not just an exceptional Dunk Contest participant.
Speaking of All-Stars, James Harden should make his 11th straight appearance. He missed out as a starter, but was fourth or fifth in each of the three voting categories. With Tyrese Maxey carrying the bench unit of late, Tobias Harris continuing his steady play, newcomer De’Anthony Melton fitting in seamlessly, and members of the supporting cast like Georges Niang and Shake Milton having excellent seasons, the current iteration of the Sixers looks as poised to compete as any group we’ve seen come through Philadelphia of late.
A win over the West-best Nuggets today will go a long way towards reinforcing the idea that these Sixers are a force to be reckoned with heading into the second half of the season. Let’s see them take care of business at home, give Joel Embiid a notch in his belt over Nikola Jokic for when awards season rolls around, and keep the good vibes flowing for the Birds tomorrow.