PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers defeated the Denver Nuggets in one of the biggest battles of the NBA season to date. Joel Embiid played an outstanding game against Nikola Jokic and was the key force for the Sixers. One of Philly’s other heroes of the afternoon contest was P.J. Tucker for his pivotal defense against Jokic.
“I thought in the second half, making that switch won us the game,” Embiid said of the move to have Tucker guard Jokic. He took Aaron Gordon after guarding Jokic in the first half. It was a move that was surprising given Jokic’s success against shorter defenders and Tucker’s defensive struggles. But it worked.
Doc Rivers said that he watched how Tucker guarded Jokic last year when he was with the Miami Heat and was impressed. “We just felt like at halftime, we weren’t up into him. He was catching it where he wanted to catch it,” he said. “And he’s such a focal point of their offense that if [Tucker] can get up under him and make him catch it above the three-point line, now those handoffs, you can go under, they don’t matter anymore. In the first half, he caught everything on the elbows and [down] low. Listen, Joel was phenomenal, he had 47 points. But we don’t win the game if P.J. Tucker doesn’t play. And the way he played in the second half was extraordinary.”
Tucker’s physicality allowed Embiid to roam by the hoop to take away close shots and lob opportunities while guys like Tobias Harris were able to strip Jokic of the ball in crucial situations. The Sixers’ win was thanks mostly to a sensational Embiid performance but guys like Tucker, Harris and James Harden stepped in at the right times to earn the impressive victory. Tucker also provided a huge putback shot off of an offensive rebound in the fourth quarter.
While Tucker hasn’t been an elite defender all season long, he has had his bright spots against some high-level players. This win was perhaps the greatest example of the type of role he can play to help the Sixers win against the best teams.