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 snap a two-game skid. Joel Embiid and James Harden each put on shows as the Sixers took control in the fourth quarter for a win over the Knicks, 119-112.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Sixers were without Tyrese Maxey, who is inching closer to a return from a small 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 a non-displaced 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 speaks to how bad the Sixers looked in the first quarter, but the only thing to say is that I think there’s a case to be made that Danuel House Jr. is the best Sixer not named Tyrese Maxey at pushing the ball in transition. I don’t even remember if anything came of the possession. But, House got the ball in the backcourt and immediately applied pressure on the Knicks in transition. That’s something he’s done time and time again with the Sixers. Although, memory would say it’s had mixed results.
The game’s tone changed quite a bit once Embiid checked in for his second run. The Knicks appeared ready to run away with it, the Sixers finding absolutely nothing on offense before Embiid returned. Philadelphia’s defense didn’t pick up much of the slack. But, the offense certainly started to click. You can thank Embiid for that. After an uninspiring showing in his first stint of the game, Embiid asserted himself against the Knicks’ interior.
It wasn’t a flashy or creative display in marksmanship from the elbow and in. Embiid simply decided to go to work at the rim, appealing to Wilt Chamberlain fans all over the Delaware Valley. He made Robinson commit fouls to avoid being totally overwhelmed, forcing New York’s rebounding savant out of the game for Jericho Sims. Neither guy had a chance against Embiid. The big guy brought the Sixers back into the game by establishing himself inside and at the free throw line.
There’s commentary on the Sixers’ defense below, but the third quarter was quite the watch for those who enjoy offense. Not many turnovers, both teams making shots. Besides tightly contested games, it’s what the league wants on its premier day of the regular season — elite displays of shotmaking. The Sixers and Knicks went back and forth all third quarter, draining shot after shot. A shootout at The Garden to set up a competitive decisive quarter; Santa 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 any team opts to go with single coverage against Embiid. But, the Knicks were comfortable with letting him do whatever he wanted on an island. They didn’t help or double all that often. Instead, they made a point of tightening up on the other four guys on the court. That’s something neither Embiid nor the rest of the Sixers are used to. He usually garners extra attention, leaving his four compadres on the court with him open to catch and shoot or attack closeouts off the dribble.
It seemed to throw the Sixers off a little bit, they went through stretches where it was either Embiid or nothing because no one else could shake free. The Knicks’ idea was a good one, they were content with getting 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 to go in the third quarter, and then Harden came alive. The Sixers went on a 13-5 run starting in the final minute of the third period and leaking into the opening moments of the final frame. Harden knocked down three triples in that span, capping off 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 of shutting down everyone not named Joel Embiid.
That’s when things got tight for New York. Suddenly, every shot they took rimmed out. The wide-open threes stopped falling, and the Sixers started to string together rebounds. By the time Embiid checked back in, it felt like the Sixers had already seized the opportunity they needed to come away with the win.
That small stretch of time connecting the third quarter to the fourth quarter was the perfect balance in Harden’s game. You saw glimpses of the Harden that was a one-man offense in Houston, cooking up 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 perhaps 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 up his point guard game on Sunday. It was the best of both worlds. Harden’s brief charge allowed the Sixers to slow the game down. The bearded guy manufactured space for shooters before feeding them for open looks from the perimeter. Hard to run if you’re taking the ball out of bounds every possession.
The Sixers held the Knicks to just six points through the first nine minutes of the fourth quarter. Some of it was just New York suffering through a shooting slump at the worst possible time. But, some of it was Philadelphia’s defense feeding off the momentum the offense had. New York had control for approximately 75 percent of the game. And then, the more talented team came alive. Philadelphia essentially toyed with New York for three quarters before finally getting serious when each possession became increasingly important.
Aside from a pair of threes from Randle in the opening minutes, New York did most of its early damage in the paint. Whether it was Brunson using his strong frame to back Melton down and push his way into the paint or other concerted efforts from the Knicks to get their feet within the free throw line to make something happen, Philadelphia didn’t have its best protection inside early on.
The “why” behind that is just as important as the fact that it was the case. The Sixers weren’t able to get their hips squared with players on the perimeter. They allowed the Knicks to find edges and attack in space. Even when Embiid abandoned the deep drop coverage to stop the ball, his teammates didn’t do enough to secure the backside. Robinson had avenues to slide to the rim for offensive rebounds, creating extra shots for the Knicks.
Embiid won’t escape criticism there, either. He didn’t help much in the fight to keep Robinson off the glass. He failed to box him out on a few occasions in the first quarter. Embiid was also a hair late on contests when he played more to the level of the screen instead of dropping deep.
There was little the big guy did to establish himself inside on the defensive end of the court while the Knicks created separation in the first quarter. He wasn’t all that inspired on offense, either. He lost his dribble for a live-ball turnover in the first frame, and settled for a number of jumpers instead of imposing his will inside. An opportunity to come out hot on national television, and Embiid didn’t look close to the best player on the court in the first nine minutes of the game.
Even when the Knicks cooled off, the Sixers struggled to strike back for portions of the second quarter because they just couldn’t get anything going on offense. There were four possessions in a row that featured Harden isolating for rather difficult jumpers. Upon initial viewing, I’m not prepared to say it was Harden ignoring everyone else and trying to turn it into his show. It felt more like the Sixers were clunky. The other four guys on the court seemed unwilling to move and unable to create space for themselves to manufacture any type of action. So, Harden had to make something happen. But, only one of the four attempts found the mark.
The Knicks produced just three points in the first four minutes and change of the second quarter. But, the Sixers still trailed by eight points because of the clunkiness on their end of the floor.
Christmas time is referred to as “The Season of Giving”, and Randle was in the giving mood. That is, he was interested in giving Tucker buckets. 25 points in the first half for the slithery Knicks forward. He went at Tucker over and over again. Much of Randle’s damage in the first quarter came courtesy of spot-up threes. But, he got to the basket at will in the second quarter, dusting Tucker off the dribble repeatedly. You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch.
As it would turn out, Harden was actually the team’s best defender on Randle. I think Harden’s strength and ability to hold ground against bigger offensive players in a switch is perhaps a bit underrated. But, he’s fairly earned his career-long reputation as a big minus on defense. If Harden wins your defensive matchup more than you do, you struggled quite a bit.
I’ve been pretty high on the Sixers’ zone defense over the past few weeks. But, they couldn’t stop the bleeding for the vast majority of the game. They couldn’t contain dribble penetration for most of the day. The Knicks knifed their way into the paint for scores or kicks to shooters on the perimeter throughout the game.
It took two separate horrific offensive ruts from New York — one in the second quarter and one for 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 fits in the dry spell that took up the majority of the fourth quarter; Philadelphia deserves credit for that. But, most of the Knicks’ offensive troubles were their own shortcomings, not the Sixers tightening up on defense.
The Sixers (20-12) will visit the Washington Wizards (13-21) on Tuesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.