DENVER - Will a new year bring new 76ers? They can only hope.
Finishing what has been a disastrous 2016, the Sixers had hoped to end the year on a high note. And if what transpired on the court was any indication, 2017 – at least the start of it – holds more promise.
The Sixers snapped a four-game losing streak Friday night with a 124-122 victory over the Denver Nuggets here at the Pepsi Center. They capped their four-game, nine-day West Coast road trip with a much-needed win.
"Almost every game we've been in games," center Joel Embiid said. "The fourth quarter is usually bad for us. Today we had a meeting about it. We focused tonight and we got the win."
But it was a nail-bitter that wasn't decided until the final second ticked off the clock.
With his team down four points, Nikola Jokic went to the foul line to attempt three shots with 3.0 seconds left. He made the first two and missed the third on purpose. Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris grabbed the offensive rebound and missed a jumper with 0.9 seconds left. Nerlens Noel came up with the defensive rebound and heaved the ball into the air as time expired.
The victory improved the Sixers' mark to 8-24 heading into the New Year. The Sixers ended the 2015-16 campaign with a 10-72 record.
"Even though we are not happy with our record, we are in a much better place than we were at this time last year," said shooting guard Nik Stauskas, whose squad had a 3-31 record at this time last season.
The Sixers had a balanced attack will all five starters and reserve power forward Dario Saric scoring in double figures. But they wouldn't have won this game without the efforts of Embiid, T.J. McConnell and Ersan Ilyasova.
Embiid took over the game with 31.5 seconds left before fouling out with three seconds left. With the scored tied at 117, the 7-foot-2, 275-pounder scored five of the Sixers' final seven points from the foul line and had key block.
Embiid finished with 23 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals, three blocks and five turnovers. He made 12 of 14 foul shots.
While Embiid was clutch down the stretch, Ilyasova carried the team through three quarters. That's when the power forward scored all 23 of his points and grabbed 10 of his game-high 13 rebounds. Ilyasova made of 5 of 6 three-pointers. His lone miss came in the fourth. This game marked his second consecutive double-double and seventh of the season.
Meanwhile, McConnell scored 13 of his season-high 17 points in the fourth quarter. The point guard also finished with a game-high eight assists to go with two turnovers in a game-high 35 minutes, 54 seconds. He attempted – and made – all three of his three-pointers in the fourth quarter. His last one gave the Sixers a 117-113 lead with 1:22 left.
"It finally feels good to see the threes fall in," said McConnell, who shot 18.8 percent from that distance entering the game. "I know I'm a capable shooter. I just got off to a rough start. I just have to have confidence in it and keep shooting."
Perhaps, the most impressive thing is the Sixers' 2-0 record with him as a starter.
Robert Covington finished with 19 points one day after scoring one point on 0-for-11 shooting. He was 3-for-6 on three-pointers.
Saric added 13 points, while Nik Stauskas finished with 10. Nerlens Noel had nine points, two rebounds and one block.
"I thought it was great balance," Noel said. "I think guys came in and contributed and did what they had to do. I think guy hit big shot, especially T.J. hitting those two big three down the stretch. I think that opened up some things for us."
Jokic paced the Nuggets (14-19) with a game-high 25 points.
The Sixers had a 112-102 lead after McConnell's three with 4:20 seconds left.
Jokic, however, knotted the score at 117 with a pair of foul shots 49.4 second left. Embiid then split a pair of foul shots to give the Sixers a one-point lead with 31.5 seconds left.
Then Embiid recorded his clutch block on Jokic on the ensuing possession. After being fouled, the Sixer hit a pair of foul shots to give the Sixers a 120-117 lead with 15.9 seconds left. But Danilo Gallinari drove the lane for a dunk to make it a one-point game with 10.1 remaining.
Covington responded with a pair of foul shots with 8.8 left to push the lead back up to three.
After being fouled by McConnell, Emmanuel Mudiay went to the line with 5.5 seconds left. He made the first foul shot and missed the second on purpose. However, it was rebounded by Embiid. He made a pair of foul shots with 4.6 seconds left to give the Sixers a 124-120 advantage.
Embiid fouled out to put Jokic to the line with 3.0 left.
The Sixers were without their starting back court in point guard Sergio Rodriguez (left-ankle sprain) and shooting guard Gerald Henderson (left-hip soreness). The team also didn't utilize their starting lineup that featured twin towers Embiid and Jahlil Okafor. Embiid was paired with Ilyasova.
Okafor sat out to the game to rest his sore left hamstring. He first experienced the tightness in Thursday's loss to the Jazz.
"It's really minor," Okafor said of his hamstring. "I could go out there and play."
The 6-11 center added that Sixers coach Brett Brown thought it was a good opportunity to rest. Plus, the Nuggets have a small lineup, starting 6-8 power forward Wilson Chandler.
"He thinks it's a smart choice, and I agree with him," Okafor said.
Hamstring or not, one got the sense that the Sixers weren't going to start the twin towers lineup away. Brown mentioned on Thursday that it hadn't been successful. And he was right; the Sixers were 1-5 in games where Embiid and Okafor were in the starting lineup. Plus, the pacing was better when Embiid was paired with Ilyasova. The Sixers are now 4-5 when they start together.
Meanwhile, McConnell started in place of Rodriguez and Stauskas replaced Henderson for the second consecutive game.
This performance came one out after the Sixers were outscored 21-2 at the start of the fourth quarter en route to losing 100-83 at the Utah Jazz.
"I think that's a credit to coach Brown," Noel said. "He made a big point to focus in the fourth quarter and be able to close out a game on both sides of the floor. I think we definitely responded to that tonight."