Jalen Brunson drives against the Sixers; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (34-19) hosted the New York Knicks (30-26) on Friday in each team’s first game post trade deadline. Philadelphia wanted to snap a two-game losing streak. New York wanted to extend its winning streak to three games. Tyrese Maxey scored 27 points off the bench to lead the Sixers to a second-half comeback and victory, 119-108.

Before we get to the action, some house-keeping.

Contextual Notes

The Knicks were without the services of Josh Hart, whose trade from the Portland Trail Blazers to New York is pending.

Mitchell Robinson was out as he recovers from surgery on his right thumb.

Tom Thibodeau started Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Jericho Sims.

The Sixers were without Julian Champagnie and Louis King, who are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.

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


The best thing Embiid has done lately is use his body to get inside consistently. He’s been attacking the baseline side frequently, using his butt to back defenders away from the ball and create room. Once he uses that force to get to the basket, Embiid simply kisses the ball of the glass. It’s a classic big man move, separating the men from the boys with pure physical dominance. And of late, it’s been a near automatic bucket for Embiid.

This game featured some of the best off-the-dribble shotmaking we’ve seen from Embiid all season. One of the clearest areas of growth for him this season has been slashing to the rim against unaware or physically inferior defenders. He catches and attacks as if he’s a wing, getting to the cup with control and laying the ball in through contact and traffic. The irony of it all is that he’s never been a particularly great dribbler. But, he’s fairly secure with the basketball on those line drives. Embiid used that move coupled with a euro step or plant and change of direction often against the Knicks, countering the man in his way when he loaded up on Embiid’s driving hand.

The big guy also put forth one of his best off-the-dribble shooting displays in quite some time. He attacked space before pulling up for 10-foot jumpers, banking one fadeaway in during a run of sweet shooting in the third quarter.

As much as Embiid has struggled with turnovers this season, this was one of his best nights of keeping the ball safe when he put it on the deck. Some of that is coincidence and luck. But, some of it is control. It helps when you don’t put the ball on the floor until you know what you’re going to do, dribbling with a purpose. As red-hot as Embiid was, he knew he wanted to score. There was no decision to make.

When it came time to put the game on ice, Embiid was a bit forceful with passes, trying to make plays that weren’t necessarily there. To my recollection, only one resulted in a turnover. Forcing passes that aren’t there is always a fate-tempting errand. But, Embiid also plugged his shooters when the pass was actually there. He trusted his teammates to make shots, leveraging his scoring gravity as a star to feed open looks for his teammates. It wasn’t the perfect display of playmaking, but Embiid made some good decisions with the game on the line.

This contest was the perfect example of what makes the Sixers frustrating and difficult to trust. Their defense was putrid in the first half, and they really didn’t make much progress until the middle of the third quarter. But, they can suddenly turn it on on both ends of the floor. The Sixers can go on 8-0 runs in less than two minutes like the Warriors have done time and time again over the last decade.

No deficit feels insurmountable, and the Sixers are never too far away from turning the game’s momentum around. In some ways, it’s probably good that they’re capable of waking up and firing on all cylinders so quickly — that’s what happens when you have star power. But, consistency is how you build trust. And they haven’t been consistent over the last month.

The offensive spark put points on the board before the Knicks could even blink. But, the game completely turned when Philadelphia went to its zone defense. This was the perfect team to deploy zone against. New York is not a dangerous three-point shooting squad, and their offense slowed to a halt when the Sixers went to the zone. An 11-point deficit became a one-point lead before you could even process what had just happened.

My eyes say that the zone has been a great weapon for the Sixers this season. They’ve been fairly liberal in deploying it, although I think certain matchups should empower Philadelphia to go to the zone quickly when things aren’t working. The problem is that Embiid doesn’t like playing zone, so you do have some politics and star-soothing at play here. I would’ve liked to see them go to it earlier on Friday, but better late than never.

Philadelphia was dead in the water before Maxey checked into the game, trailing 20-7 in the first five minutes of action. Serving as the sixth man spark, Maxey brought the Sixers back to life. After struggling mightily in the losses in New York and Boston, Maxey got right to work. His first basket was the truest sign that Maxey felt like himself, slamming on the gas pedal to blow by bigger New York defenders before getting close enough to the rim to get his fingernails on the glass.

Maxey’s basketball intelligence was on full display in his drives. He attacked across the lane, extending the ball after playing his lead foot to draw fouls across his arms. Maxey changed speeds on a dime, getting bigger defenders off balance and dancing. You could smell the fire burning when he pulled up for a triple early in the shot clock against the Knicks’ drop coverage. He rode the heater throughout the rest of the game, lacing four triples in the second half to help lead the Sixers’ surge with 27 points in more than 32 minutes off the bench.

You’re not always going to get those bursts from a sixth man. It’s an inherently hot and cold role. But, the Sixers need Maxey to remember how he felt on this night. The mentality he exhibited — fully aggressive, using his driving game to establish himself and open his shooting game, and playing without any thought about the last play — is what the Sixers need from him if he’s going to remain in the sixth man role.

One of the worst things opposing defenses can do when playing road games in Philadelphia is fall for the back-side trap when Georges Niang is on the floor. The Sixers ran actions towards one side of the floor, ridding the opposite corner of any Knicks defenders for Niang. And just as they pulled Niang’s man away in help, the Sixers rifled one or two rapid passes across the court to get the ball to Niang for open triples. Those empty back side swing plays are automatic buckets for Niang, and he killed the Knicks with those open threes on Friday.

Really, really good night of taking care of the basketball for the Sixers. Six turnovers in the game, and Embiid only contributed one of them. That will do, always and forever.


In the battle of left-handed point guards, Brunson was far and away the standout in the game’s first five minutes. He punched the Sixers with physicality inside, changing speeds to get the likes of Melton and Harris off balance before using his left shoulder as a shield against interior defenders while he drove to the basket with his right. That bruising style of play pushed him out to a 13-point burst ahead of the first timeout. From there, all he saw was an ocean.

Philadelphia also let him get comfortable from the perimeter, dropping below the level of the ball screen on an early pick-and-roll to give Brunson the space to pull up into a triple from the top of the key. The inability to match Brunson’s physicality and inattention on ball screens for him weren’t the only defensive problems. Even when they had Brunson in space, the Sixers showed poor discipline. They jumped at his fakes, sending the Knicks guard to the line for free throws.

Whether it was Brunson or another Knick ball-handler, the Sixers just struggled mightily to contain the pick-and-roll in the first half. Whether it was a snug action or a more spaced out pick, they lost whoever was handling the ball and conceded the rim. The Sixers gave the driver an avenue to the basket without much resistance.

The thing is that they’re usually in a drop coverage with Embiid on the floor. So, he should be by the rim to deter those drives anyway. Thus, what the Sixers’ poor halfcourt defense in the first half came down to was really just poor communication on screens. There wasn’t a ton of effort by the ball defender to fight through the pick. Embiid didn’t exactly try to book it to beat the ball-handler to the cup, either. It certainly wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the Sixers simply gave D-effort in the first half. After all, they’ve been horrendous on defense since the start of the new year. But, the Knicks also shot 25 percent on 17 three-point attempts in the first half. I thought the Sixers did a fine job of contesting shooters. So, the problem in my eyes was communication and attention on screens.

On the topic of defense, Philadelphia’s transition defense is in the midst of a noticeable regression. Some of it is turnovers at moments when no one is in position to beat the opposition down the floor. But, the main problem right now, I’d argue, is that the first step back on defense is slow when the Sixers’ shot goes up. Not only that, but the team’s worst defenders are often the ones that are closest to the top of the floor. Ergo, the team’s already 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 disadvantage is compounded by unathletic or undersized defenders trying to backpedal to keep pace.

To Rivers’ credit, he was clearly dissuaded by the embarrassing performance by the backup bigs in last weekend’s loss to these Knicks to the point that Montrezl Harrell didn’t get off the bench in this game. Paul Reed was the choice to relieve Embiid. But, he didn’t do much to pitch his coaches on investing more playing time in him. Reed had a couple of great defensive plays as a shader. He retreated to the basket quickly on long passes to blow up plays towards the rim. As good as those plays were, Reed also gave contact on shots that he had no chance of legitimately contesting. He inexplicably fouled Isaiah Hartenstein on a floater some 14 feet from the basket.

Rivers empowered Reed to be himself in last season’s playoffs, and it paid off. The young big gave Philadelphia some good minutes in its two-round stay. But, Reed has an opportunity to win the job. After the game, Rivers openly admitted that Harrell hasn’t played well and that it’s time for Reed to get some run. You can read into that what you want. But, he has a chance to prove he should be the guy when the chips are down. Granted he hasn’t had a ton of in-game experience, the old habits still plague Reed. I didn’t feel like he proved that he’s learning in his minutes on Friday.

I wouldn’t say the Sixers did a poor job of defending Julius Randle in this one. But, he did a ton of his work with the jumper. That rainfall included four triples in the third quarter. He and Brunson split a combined 60 points. Rough night of pure talent just beating the Sixers’ defense even when it was good.

As many calls as the Knicks got on contested jumpers, the officials really swallowed their whistles on a couple of fouled three-point attempts for Philadelphia. Bad officiating, what else is new?

The Sixers (34-19) will visit the Brooklyn Nets (33-22) on Saturday. Tip-off is 6 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on NBA TV.


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