The Sixers (19-12) visited the New York Knicks (18-15) on Christmas Day. Philadelphia wanted to extend its winning streak to eight games. New York had plans to break a two-game slip. Joel Embiid and James Harden each put on a show as the Sixers took control in the fourth quarter for a victory over the Knicks, 119-112.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is nearing a return after a minor fracture in his left foot.
Saben Lee and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were unavailable.
Doc Rivers started Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker and Embiid.
The Knicks were without Obi Toppin, who has an undisplaced fracture in the head of his right fibula.
Trevor Keels and DaQuan Jeffries are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Westchester Knicks and were unavailable.
Tom Thibodeau started Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson.
This shows how bad the Sixers looked in the first quarter, but all I can say is I think there’s a case that Danuel House Jr. the best Sixer is, not named Tyrese Maxey, at pushing the ball into transition. I can’t even remember if anything ever came of the possession. But House got the ball in the backcourt and immediately put pressure on the Knicks in transition. That’s something he’s done time and time again with the Sixers. Though memory would say it had mixed results.
The tone of the game changed quite a bit when Embiid signed up for his second run. The Knicks seemed ready to run with it, the Sixers found absolutely nothing offensive before Embiid returned. The Philadelphia defense didn’t pick up much of the slack. But the attack certainly started to click. You can thank Embiid for that. After an uninspired performance in his first stint of the game, Embiid asserted himself against the Knicks’ interior.
It wasn’t a flashy or creative display of marksmanship from the elbow and in. Embiid decided to just work on the fringes, which appealed to Wilt Chamberlain fans throughout the Delaware Valley. He caused Robinson to foul to avoid being completely overwhelmed, forcing New York’s rebounding savant out of the game for Jericho Sims. Neither man stood a chance against Embiid. The big man got the Sixers back in the game by settling inside and at the free throw line.
There’s commentary on the Sixers’ defense below, but the third quarter was quite a wait for those who like offense. Not much turnover, both teams taking shots. Besides tightly contested games, here’s what the league wants on the most important day of the regular season: elite displays of shotmaking. The Sixers and Knicks went back and forth throughout the third quarter, emptying shot after shot. A shootout at The Garden to set up a competitive tie-breaking quarter; Santa Claus gave the people what they wanted.
I thought the Sixers struggled to tie the game and take over because of the Knicks’ defensive strategy. It’s rare that a team chooses to go against Embiid with one cover. But the Knicks liked to let him do whatever he wanted on an island. They didn’t help or double that often. Instead, they made it a point to tighten up on the other four guys on the field. That’s something neither Embiid nor the rest of the Sixers are used to. He usually gets extra attention and leaves his four compadres on the field with him open to catch dribble closeouts and shoot or attack.
It seemed to unnerve the Sixers a bit, going through stretches where it was either Embiid or nothing because no one else could shake themselves free. The Knicks’ idea was a good one, they were happy with enough stops against Embiid if it meant no one else really got it going in the second half.
Philadelphia trailed 93-88 with 1:11 left in the third quarter, and that’s when Harden came alive. The Sixers began a 13-5 run in the final minute of the third period and leaked into the opening moments of the final frame. Harden hit three triples in that span and ended the run with a flip to Georges Niang for a three to give the Sixers their first lead of the game. Harden scored or assisted on all 13 points, foiling the Knicks’ strategy to eliminate anyone not named Joel Embiid.
Then things got tight for New York. Suddenly every shot they made fell out. The wide-open threes stopped falling and the Sixers began stringing together rebounds. By the time Embiid checked back in, it felt like the Sixers had already jumped at the chance to get away with the win.
That short time frame between Q3 and Q4 was the perfect balance in Harden’s game. You saw a glimpse of the Harden being a one-man attack in Houston, cooking a handful of points himself in short order to scare the defense and then using his gravity to create shots for others. For the first time since maybe the first few games of the season, or maybe even since his early days in Brooklyn, Harden found the combo guard version of himself.
Fresh off arguably the best point guard game in Sixers history on Friday, Harden used his aggression as a scorer to open his point guard game on Sunday. It was the best of both worlds. Harden’s short offense allowed the Sixers to slow down the game. The bearded man made room for gunners before feeding them to open stares from the perimeter. Difficult to run if you take the ball out of bounds with every possession.
The Sixers held the Knicks to just six points in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. Part of it was just New York suffering through a shooting at the worst possible time. But part of it was the Philadelphia defense feeding off the momentum the offense had. New York controlled about 75 percent of the game. And then the more talented team came to life. Philadelphia essentially played three-quarters with New York before finally getting serious as each possession grew in importance.
Aside from a pair of threes from Randle in the opening minutes, New York did most of its early damage. Whether it was Brunson using his strong frame to push down Melton and work his way to the paint or other concerted efforts by the Knicks to get their feet inside the free throw line to make something happen, Philadelphia hadn’t the best protection in early On.
The “why” behind it is just as important as the fact that it was. The Sixers were unable to straighten their hips with players on edge. They allowed the Knicks to find and attack edges in space. Even as Embiid left deep drop coverage to stop the ball, his teammates didn’t do enough to secure the back end. Robinson had opportunities to slide to the rim for offensive rebounds, creating extra shots for the Knicks.
There, too, Embiid cannot escape criticism. He didn’t help much in the fight to keep Robinson off the glass. He failed to box him out a few times in the first quarter. Embiid was also a hair late to games as he played more at the level of the screen rather than sinking deep.
There was little the big man did to establish himself on the defensive end of the field as the Knicks separated in the first quarter. He wasn’t that inspired by attacks either. He lost his dribble for a live ball in the first frame and settled for some jumpers rather than imposing his will inside. A chance to shine on national television, and Embiid looked nowhere near the best player on the field in the opening nine minutes of the match.
Even as the Knicks cooled off, the Sixers struggled to hit back through parts of the second quarter because they just couldn’t get anything going on offense. There were four possessions in a row with Harden isolating for rather difficult jumpers. On first viewing, I’m not prepared to say it was Harden who ignored everyone else and tried to make it his show. It felt more like the Sixers were clumsy. The other four guys on the field seemed unwilling to move and unable to create space for themselves to think of any action. So Harden had to make something happen. But only one of four attempts found the target.
The Knicks produced just three points in the first four minutes and a second-quarter substitution. But the Sixers still trailed by eight points due to the clumsiness on their side of the floor.
Christmastime is called “The Season of Giving” and Randle was in the mood to give. That is, he was interested in giving Tucker buckets. 25 points in the first half for the slippery Knicks forward. He attacked Tucker over and over again. Much of Randle’s damage in the first quarter was due to spot-up threes. But he came to the basket at will in the second quarter, repeatedly dusting Tucker off the dribble. You are mean, Mr. Grinch.
It would turn out that Harden was actually the team’s best defender on Randle. I think Harden’s strength and ability to hold up against bigger offensive players in a substitution might be a little understated. But he’s earned his career-long reputation as a major underdog on defense. If Harden wins your defensive match more times than you, you’ve had a pretty rough time.
I’ve been pretty high on the Sixers’ zone defense for the past few weeks. But they couldn’t stop the bleeding for most of the game. They couldn’t contain the dribble penetration for most of the day. The Knicks made their way through the paint during the game for scores or punts to shooters on the rim.
It took two separate gruesome offensive spurts from New York—one in the second quarter and one in the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter—for the Sixers to get back into this game and take control. The zone defense gave the Knicks bouts in the dry spell that took up most of the fourth quarter; Philadelphia deserves credit for that. But most of the Knicks’ offensive problems were their own shortcomings, not the Sixers tightening their defense.
The Sixers (20-12) will visit the Washington Wizards (13-21) on Tuesday. The tip is scheduled for 7 p.m. Eastern time. You can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.
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