DENVER – The Denver Nuggets were unhappy that they nearly collapsed against the shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers on Monday, despite continuing their march towards the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Western Conference top seeding with a 116-111 home victory.
Two-time reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic had his 29th triple-double of the season for Denver with 25 points, 17 rebounds and 12 assists.
But he was disappointed that the Nuggets let a 20-point fourth-quarter lead dwindle to just three with 28.9 seconds remaining.
The Sixers – third in the East – were missing star centre Joel Embiid and playmaker James Harden.
“We didn’t do a good job today,” Jokic said. “We had control of the whole game, and then in the fourth quarter, we lost control.
“We took bad shots, we didn’t play defence and that’s why they came back.”
Nuggets sixth man Bruce Brown, who had 18 points, added: “We can’t have that kind of letdown, especially against a team with their two superstars out.
“This should have been a 20-point win. We just took our foot off the gas.”
However, the Nuggets (51-24) still pushed their lead to 3½ games over the Memphis Grizzlies (47-27) atop the West with a fourth straight victory.
Jamal Murray added 19 points, Michael Porter Jr supplied 15 and Aaron Gordon had 12 for Denver (51-24).
Tyrese Maxey scored 29 points, Paul Reed and Tobias Harris had 16 points apiece and Jalen McDaniels finished with 14 for Philadelphia (49-26).
Denver led by as much as 11 in the first quarter, but Maxey got hot in the second.
He shot eight for 11, made a pair of three-pointers and finished with 20 points in the period. He sank two layups late to help the Sixers get within 61-57 at half-time.
Philadelphia opened the third quarter with a basket, but the Nuggets subsequently started to take control. Jokic scored 12 points and Gordon had six during a 22-2 run that put Denver ahead 83-61.
Reed heated up late in the period with eight points in less than two minutes to get the Sixers back within 16, and they were 91-77 heading into the fourth.
The Nuggets’ bench came alive at the start of the final period to expand the lead to 20, but the Sixers’ bench then mounted a late rally.
Philadelphia went on a 16-2 run to get within 112-107 with 1min 23sec left.
Denver forward Jeff Green’s dunk made it a seven-point game, but a layup by Furkan Korkmaz and a dunk from Montrezl Harrell made it 114-111 with 28.9sec to go.
Green then hit two free throws with 13.3sec left to seal it.
The absence of MVP candidate Embiid took some shine off the contest, but Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said the decision to hold him out because of a sore calf was “not a hard decision for us”.
“We want to get him and the whole team healthy for the play-offs,” he said.
“Everybody wants to see these two guys (Embiid and Jokic) play against each other, but we’re just going to take it slow and be smart. We want to get him and the team healthy.”
When asked about the talk surrounding the MVP race, Rivers added that fans should just appreciate both players and not hate the one whom they are not a fan of.
“It’s like we can’t celebrate people,” he said.
“The league is in a great place. It’s in an amazing place. You’ve got Joel Embiid and Jokic, two centres, in a non-centre league, dominating the league.
“You’ve got Giannis (Antetokounmpo)... one of the best players in the league. Jayson Tatum is playing unbelievable. Kevin Durant, if he wasn’t hurt, you can just keep going.
“You can like them all, and you can actually not like one because you love the other one. But you don’t have to hate on anybody.”