Joel Embiid and James Harden back on defense; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (34-17) visited the New York Knicks (28-26) on Sunday. Philadelphia wanted to push its winning streak to three games. New York wanted to win the second leg of its home back-to-back after losing to the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday. The Sixers couldn’t get out of their own way after a hot start, forfeiting a 21-point lead in a 108-97 loss. 

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats. Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.

The Knicks were without the services of Mitchell Robinson, who is recovering from surgery on his right thumb. RJ Barrett missed the game with a non-Covid illness. 

DaQuan Jeffries and Trevor Keels are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Westchester Knicks and were unavailable.

Tom Thibodeau started Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, Immanuel Quickley, Julius Randle, and Jericho Sims.


The Pro Bowl flag football game made for some odd scheduling conflict as this game began. Then tip-off didn’t take place until 20 minutes past the hour. That, itself, isn’t all that surprising. Although 20 minutes is a bit longer than the buffer of time you typically add for ESPN, ESPN-televised games usually tip 15 minutes after the scheduled time. But, the sign of a full moon wasn’t either of those oddities. Rather, it was Tucker scoring seven points in the first quarter, and five in the first three minutes of the game.

He cut backdoor along the baseline, finishing a dump-off pass from Harden. A moment later, Tucker flushed a corner triple. Been a rough offensive season for Tucker. Ultimately, none of what he does in the regular season matters. His evaluation in Philadelphia begins when the playoffs start. But, any given Sunday, I suppose.

With no Robinson in his way to challenge strength with verticality, Embiid saw a plate full of food every time he touched the ball in the first quarter. From his first touch of the game, Embiid played with immense force. There were no fancy self-created jumpers. If the jumper at the elbows was there, fine. If not, Embiid used his body to get inside, giving the likes of Sims and Hartenstein no choice but to foul or become part of a poster. Embiid stepped to the charity stripe for seven free throws in the first quarter, setting the stage for a 19-attempt night.

The storyline will take a much different turn in the “Dislike” column, but Embiid’s effort on the glass continued a trend of enhanced focus to rebound the basketball lately. There’s no way he should be averaging fewer than 10 rebounds per game, which was the case up until the last handful of games. Perhaps it was the All-Star starter snub, or perhaps Embiid feels himself closing in on the top of the MVP conversation. But, eight rebounds in the first half should be a minimum expectation for the big fella. He competed on the glass, keeping Sims and other Knicks away from the offensive glass or quickly getting to long New York misses to get Philadelphia out and running. 

Even when Harden doesn’t put up emphatic scoring numbers, it’s quite easy for him to generate significant value to his team. Harden got to the rim a number of times, getting himself to the line for six free throw attempts. But, Embiid’s dominance and the amount of reaching hands on his drives kept Harden at bay a bit in this one. He never established his three-point shot, either. So, on a night when the scoring load was carried by Embiid, Harden made sure to feed the mouths on the court with him. He controlled the pace of the game, getting Philadelphia running in transition early to take advantage of New York’s slow start and build a 21-point lead.

His teammates have learned to start getting back on offense when the shot goes up because of Harden’s hit-ahead passes. Whether it was a missed shot or a missed free throw, Harden had his eyes up the court. One dribble to generate some forward power, or maybe just float a long pass off the catch. Whatever the case, he got the ball up the court within a second often in the first quarter. Philadelphia shot 12-for-19 in the first 12 minutes. Harden’s seven assists weren’t just teammates making shots. They were easy buckets courtesy of the arm of the quarterback.

I think one of the best things Harden does as a passer is float passes to places where no defender can get them. Sometimes, he’s already committed to the jump, giving himself no choice but to pass or shoot. Other times, there’s no direction to his drive and he’s trying to make something from nothing. But, he’ll catch a weak-side helper dipping a foot a bit too deep in the paint and lob the ball to the other side of the floor. There isn’t even always a teammate there to throw to. But, he trusts the other guys on the floor to spot the ball hanging in the air and run to get it. That’s not a sense that most players have, so it’s not a habit you endorse others picking up. But, it works for Harden.

Good on Rivers for going with Paul Reed in the second half after it was abundantly clear Montrezl Harrell belonged nowhere near the court in this game. Unfortunately for the Sixers, it did not matter one iota.


There was not much to complain about during the Sixers’ run to start the game. But, I thought the Sixers gave up the middle of the floor a bit too much. You’re going to have to give something up on defense; it’s simply inevitable. You can’t take everything away. But, the Knicks were one good pass away from getting to open floaters at the free throw line. Granted, a couple of those shots came late in the clock. But, there’s an imbalance if you’re shutting down one side of the floor and then giving up wide open shots in the middle of the paint off just one pass.

A bit of a nitpick when everything was going well. But, the back side of the Knicks’ offense was completely naked. That means at least one defender isn’t doing his job. And if that isn’t the case, your scheme is selling out far too heavily on the weak side and needs an adjustment.

Well, now for the ugly.

All of the good that happened with Embiid on the court — plus-20 in the first nine minutes, 25 seconds of the game — was swiftly undone as soon as he left. I think the offensive fluidity might’ve set a bad tone for the game, because the defense went to hell as soon as the big guy took a seat. That isn’t unusual over the grand scheme of a game. But, things deteriorated for Philadelphia rapidly on this night.

As soon as Harrell checked in, the Knicks started to junk up the game. They became much more aggressive and physical on offense, and that was something the Sixers’ defense wasn’t prepared for. If they didn’t go right at Harrell for buckets at the rim, they attacked him and drew the whistle. To make matters worse, the Sixers quickly found out that the offensive flow didn’t continue regardless of whether Embiid and Harden were on the floor. Maxey couldn’t get anything going towards the basket as the primary creator off the bench. Even when he did get to the rim, he rushed, putting too much English on the ball to get crafty finishes to drop.

It wouldn’t be fair to make Harrell the sole target of criticism. He played less than four minutes in this contest. But, Harrell was a minus-15 in those minutes. Paul Reed wasn’t much better in his eight minutes, 25 seconds of play. Philadelphia was minus-14 with him on the court.

But, here’s the thing — Harrell and Reed had the two best plus/minuses of any reserve that played in the game!

Backup center is a big problem that should be a primary focus with the trade deadline at the end of the week. Based on the vast majority of the reporting out there, such is the case. But, this game wasn’t just lost on the backs of the backup centers. The bench, as a whole, was absolutely abhorrent. Reserves not named Maxey combined for four points on the night. Even if Harrell and Reed weren’t totally blown off the court on defense, it wouldn’t have mattered because the offense drew dead.

The game wasn’t lost in that second quarter run that saw the Knicks totally erase the Sixers’ lead. The Sixers punched back when Embiid returned and restored a bit of control during his stint in the third quarter. But, Philadelphia absolutely lost its mind on both ends as soon as the big guy checked out in the first quarter.

The Knicks not only fought back, but their spirit and energy picked up. Even when Embiid returned, the fire had expanded and was beyond the point of control. New York found its physical identity and started to make the Sixers execute their offense in tight spaces rather than the open floor.

One of the biggest problems on defense was that the Sixers totally lost weak-side corner shooters. Grimes or Miles McBride, didn’t matter. Transition or halfcourt, didn’t matter. The Sixers were constantly one rotation too short, and the Knicks got wide open looks from deep.

The byproduct of New York forcing the Sixers to execute offense in tight spaces was turnovers. Philadelphia took excellent care of the basketball in the first half. That all went away in the second half. It wasn’t just passes or lost balls. Philadelphia became very sloppy, throwing the ball out of bounds and mistiming moves within actions. Even when the Sixers rebuilt some separation or looked poised to pull away, they let the Knicks stay alive by failing to execute and at least get a shot on their possessions.  

It’s more than fair to criticize Rivers for his rotations in this game. At the beginning of the season, he professed that the idea was to stagger Embiid, Harden, Harris, and Maxey so that two were always on the court with the reserves. Technically, that is partially the case now that Maxey is a reserve. But, he’s not ready to commandeer an offense by himself.

As of late, Rivers has gravitated towards those all-bench lineups. It hurt them in the loss to the Magic, and it absolutely killed the Sixers in this game. He’d probably tell you differently, but the head coach didn’t show that he had a feel for the trends in this game. The bench lineups couldn’t have made it any more obvious that they weren’t going to be able to hold down the fort. And yet, he rolled with them. There was no mixing up lineups or rotations, no deviation from the script. He simply went down with the regularly scheduled programming, and that kept the game within striking distance for New York.

But, he can’t be the only source of blame. Philadelphia held three points going into the game’s final quarter. The situation was similar to the Christmas Day matchup between these two teams. The Sixers clearly wanted it more on Christmas, but that wasn’t the case in this game. They kept waiting for the Knicks to become lethargic, having gone to overtime in a loss to the Clippers the previous night. But, that fatigue never set in. Evan Fournier, of all people, injected energy into the Knicks, ripping the cord on a fistful of threes against a shoddy Sixers zone defense in the final quarter. And that adrenaline and momentum flipped the game on its head in the final minutes.

When all was said and done, the Sixers lost all of the 50/50 battles and failed to end critical New York possessions with defensive rebounds in the fourth quarter. At a time when the Sixers expected to just coast to the finish line, the Knicks delivered a punch with physicality that Philadelphia was unprepared for. New York came up with every offensive rebound it needed to win the possession battle in the fourth quarter. The Knicks applied a degree of effort that no one — not Embiid, not any other starter, not any reserve — cared to match.

The East may just be a three-team race. But, Philadelphia is right there to climb into the 2-seed or even take the 1-seed. The Miami Heat aren’t nearly as formidable as they were last season. But, that’s the matchup that projects to await the Sixers in the first round if they stay at the 3-seed. One punch in the face earlier in the week at the hands of the Magic was understandable. Philadelphia needed to be humbled after riding a strong high. But, this was a second instance of the same losing behaviors from that Orlando game.

If you want to get one of those top two seeds, you cannot be in the business of blowing 21-point leads and losing to inferior teams. The Sixers haven’t played a complete game in the last two weeks. They’ve simply done just enough to outlast the opposition. Make no mistake, they’re still in a great spot. They’re still a title contender this season. But, they’re also in a bit of a lull right now. And Sunday’s effort was simply inexcusable.

The Sixers (34-18) will visit the Boston Celtics (37-16) on Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on ESPN.


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