The Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers, who were forced to field a minimum of only an eight-man roster because of COVID-19 safety protocols and injuries, lost 115-103 to the visiting Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

The shorthanded Sixers, who fell to 7-3 after the defeat, were deemed to be able to play despite concerns from coach Doc Rivers about a depleted lineup after stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons debuted on the injured list 90 minutes before tip-off.

"We were told we were playing," Rivers said before the game after talking to NBA officials, AFP reported.

Mike Scott, who missed the past four games with a bruised left knee, had to suit up so the 76ers would have a minimal roster, however, he didn't feature.

"I don't think we should (play) but it's not for me to express that," Rivers said. "I do worry about our player health."

While Cameroonian star center Embiid was sidelined with back tightness, Australian point guard Simmons was out with knee stiffness.

"With the minutes we would have to ask (from Embiid), it would be insane to play him," Rivers said.

Seth Curry was out after testing positive for COVDI-19. Also missing were Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton and Vincent Poirier under NBA COVID-19 contact tracing and safety protocols.

"I trust the league and I trust the doctors as far as health-wise," Rivers said. "I'm more concerned with health on the floor."

The depleted Sixers started veterans Dwight Howard and Danny Green alongside rookie guards Isaiah Joe, Tyrese Maxey and Dakota Mathias.

All three rookies played more than 40 minutes for the outmanned Sixers, with Maxey giving his all on the court and scoring a game-high 39 points on 18-of-33 shooting plus seven rebounds and six assists.

Gary Harris led Denver with 21 points while Nikola Jokic added 15 points, 12 assists and nine rebounds.

The loss snapped a 20-game win streak for the Sixers at their home arena, dating beyond last season's Orlando bubble into matches before the virus shut down last March.

The Nuggets started brightly, making all their first six shots and seized a 12-2 lead. The Sixers fought back within 28-26 after the first quarter and stayed within 58-51 at half-time, but fatigue set in and Denver pulled away in the second half.

The Nuggets too were without Michael Porter, who is in quarantine due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

"They deemed it safe enough to play," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "To be honest, I think we're going to start seeing more of this."