Markelle Fultz returned to action for the first time in 156 days, and the 76ers defeated the Denver Nuggets 123-104 for their seventh consecutive win Monday night from the Wells Fargo Center.
After being asked repeatedly for weeks whether Fultz would see the floor again this season, Head Coach Brett Brown announced this past weekend that the decision would ultimately be up to Fultz. About two hours prior to tip Monday night, Brown mentioned, in passing, nonetheless, that Fultz would be suiting up for the matchup against the Nuggets, sending social media and the fans into a frenzy.
Fultz did not get the start, as Brown went with his classic lineup against Denver. With the hype surrounding the 76ers, the team did not get the start they were hoping for, as the Nuggets jumped out to a 9-0 lead just over a minute into the game. Will Barton poured in a pair of threes on his way to scoring all nine of those points. Barton finished with a game high 25 points, on 8-15 shooting, including knocking down five of eight from beyond the arc.
Joel Embiid would come back with a quick run of his own, picking the 76ers’ first six points, as Philadelphia cut the lead to 11-6. Embiid finished the night with 20 point and 13 rebounds in 27 minutes on a night that saw him forced out with foul trouble later in the game.
After the 76ers tied the game at 15, the Nuggets would quickly open up their lead, once more, as a 7-0 run would give them a seven point lead, 22-15. A Will Barton three would end this run, giving him 12 points in the first quarter alone.
That’s when Fultz would check into the game for the first time since October 23. The crowd rose to its collective feat, giving the 19-year-old number one overall pick a rousing standing ovation.
Fultz looked somewhat tight in his first few moments on the court, dribbling the ball of his foot on his first touch of the evening. He made up for it with 1:41 left in the quarter, as he got to the hoop on a fast break, laying the ball in for his first two points in over four months. The crowd went wild once more on this bucket as the 76ers cut the Nuggets lead to 24-19. Fultz finished the evening playing 14 minutes, shooting 5-13 from the field. He tallied ten points, but more importantly, eight assists, while primarily playing with the second unit. Brett Brown was pleased with Fultz’s performance in his first game back in four months.
“He showed signs of why he was the first player chosen. He didn’t look hesitant. He got 13 shots in 14 minutes. I loved his confidence sometimes in hunting for shots,” Brown said.
Despite Fultz’s return, the 76ers still trailed after one quarter, 27-23.
Coming out of the timeout, the two teams went on a three point shooting barrage, knocking down a trio of threes to open the second frame. Robert Covington knocked down two of the triples on consecutive possessions, trimming the Nuggets’ lead to one, 30-29. Covington finished with 18 points on 6-11 from the field, including 4-8 from three. The rest of the team followed suite Monday night, raining from three, knocking down 45 percent from deep.
The two teams would trade blows, as the Nuggets’ lead would remain in tact for much of the quarter, but Denver found a quick run midway through the quarter to grab the lead for good in the first half. The Nuggets went on an 8-0 run over 30 seconds, as Will Barton added two more triples, and extended their lead to eight, 47-39.
That eight point lead would hold true to end the first half, as the 76ers went into the locker room trailing 59-51.
To pull a line from the title of a classic novel, it was a tale of two halves for the 76ers, who came in the second half ready to strike. Philadelphia jumped out to a quick 8-3 lead behind two J.J. Redick triples sandwiching a Joel Embiid dunk. The quick strike cut the lead to three, 62-59.
Not long after, the 76ers would go on the offensive once more, this time outpacing the Nuggets 14-2 over four minutes of play. In total, the 76ers opened the half by knocking down seven of their first ten attempts from the field. During that stretch, the Nuggets missed nine consecutive shots as the 76ers clamped down defensively in the third quarter, a trend that has been common over the last few weeks for Philadelphia. The Nuggets failed to score for 3:30 during this drought. This would give the 76ers their largest lead of the night to this point, 73-66.
With 7:02 to play in the third quarter, Joel Embiid picked up his fourth foul of the contest and had to come off the floor. He would not return for the remainder of the quarter. A few minutes later, his center counterpart, Nikola Jokic recorded his fourth foul and had to take a seat on the bench.
Dario Saric had a tremendous third quarter, scoring ten of his 20 in the third frame. Saric finished the night knocking down 7-14, including 3-7 from beyond the arc.
The 76ers led by 11, 85-74, as they went into the final quarter of play. Philadelphia outscored Denver 34-15 in the third quarter.
For the fourth time in as many nights, the 76ers entered the fourth quarter with a comfortable lead, making the final 12 minutes seem almost monotonous for Philadelphia fans. While the Nuggets did score 30 points in the final frame, the 76ers matched that with 38 of their own. Nuggets’ Head Coach Michael Malone pulled nearly all of his starters with just under five minutes to play in the quarter, effectively conceding the game to the 76ers. Philadelphia would respond to that by going on a 12-4 run, opening up a 16 point lead, 107-91.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the 76ers secured their seventh consecutive victory, defeating the Denver Nuggets 123-104. The 72 points scored in the second half were the most by the 76ers in a second half this season.
The win was the 76ers’ 18th in 19 tries at the Wells Fargo Center. The 76ers improve to 43-30 on the season and take sole possession of fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with the Indiana Pacers idle Monday night. The Pacers play Tuesday night in Golden State. The team pulls half a game closer to the third seeded Cleveland Cavaliers, who sit at 44-29.
The 76ers are back on the floor Wednesday night, when they welcome the New York Knicks to the Wells Fargo Center. Tip is set for 7 p.m., and you can catch all the action on 97.5 The Fanatic!
-By Tyler Zulli