The Denver Nuggets got through one test and now they have another ahead of them.
Denver (50-24) used a huge second half to beat the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night and face another top team from the Eastern Conference when it hosts the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night.
Philadelphia (49-25) is coming off a 20-point loss at Phoenix on Saturday night, its second straight and third in the last four. The Sixers are four games behind Milwaukee for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and are in second place in the Atlantic Division.
One reason Philadelphia is scuffling is the absence of James Harden, who has missed three games with a sore Achilles. Harden leads the NBA in assists per game at 10.8 and is averaging 21.4 points a game.
Harden is on the trip and could play against the Nuggets, but coach Doc Rivers said he will prioritize health with his point guard.
“You want them to get healthy, and you don’t want to coach trying to push guys to play, put any pressure on guys,” Rivers said Saturday. “We’ve got to be healthy when it counts. If that means James doesn’t play Monday, I have no qualms with that. We need him back, but we want him back for the long haul. We don’t want him in and out, especially at this point in the season.”
A subplot of Monday’s game is Joel Embiid going against Nikola Jokic in a matchup of MVP candidates. Embiid leads the NBA in scoring with 33.3 points a game and had a statement game when the teams played in Philadelphia on Jan. 28.
Embiid finished with 47 points and 18 rebounds in a 126-119 win.
Jokic, meanwhile, is eight assists shy of averaging a triple-double for the season and is coming off a 31-point, 11-assist performance against the Bucks. Jokic has won the last two MVP awards and appeared to be the favorite for a third straight before Embiid’s recent play.
While Jokic winning the MVP would be a bonus, the Nuggets are focused on clinching the top seed in the Western Conference. Entering Sunday, they lead Memphis by 3 1/2 games with eight remaining, and a win over Philadelphia would get them a step closer.
Denver has recovered from a recent four-game losing streak to win its last three and can push that to five if it can sweep this quick homestand. However, coach Michael Malone isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I worry about everything. I don’t ever assume anything,” Malone said. “I think with (eight) games to go, we’ve seen here in Denver the last seven, eight games some pretty uncharacteristic basketball for us.”
The Nuggets clicked in the second half against Milwaukee, outscoring the Bucks 66-40. Jamal Murray, considered the key to a deep playoff run, had 26 points and is finding his stroke down the stretch but was happier with the team’s defense.
“When we’re playing defense at a high level and rotating, everybody knows exactly what they’re doing, we’re tough to beat,” he said.