Harden home debut vs Knicks

The Sixers (37-23) hosted the New York Knicks (25-36) in the second leg of a home-and-home. Philadelphia aimed to extend its winning streak to 4 games. New York hoped to snap a five-game losing skid. Joel Embiid, James Harden, and Tyrese Maxey combined for 78 points to power the Sixers to victory over the Knicks, 123-108.

Before we get down to business, some context is due.

Contextual Notes

The Knicks were without Kemba Walker, who has been shut down for the remainder of the season, and Derrick Rose, who is recovering from surgery on a skin infection on his right ankle. 

Quentin Grimes was out with a subluxation of his right patella. 

Luka Samanic (Two-Way) was on assignment with New York’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Tom Thibodeau started Alec Burks, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson.

The Sixers were without Charles Bassey, Jaden Springer, Charlie Brown Jr (Two-Way), and Myles Powell (Two-Way), who were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Quarter

Mitchell Robinson was back in hell early following a brief break from the beating he took in the Garden on Sunday afternoon. The Sixers went to Joel Embiid in the post via cross screens by the block in back-to-back possessions to start the affair. The first one yielded a turn-around jumper from the baseline. The second saw Embiid bait Robinson into a foul for a trip to the free throw line. Robinson can at least take solace in knowing that the season series against Embiid is over at the conclusion of this game.

Matisse Thybulle stroked a triple from the top of the arc to tie the game after a slow offensive start from Philadelphia’s side. But, that triple doesn’t erase his struggles on that end early on. James Harden set the third-year wing up for a clean spot-up three in the weak-side corner. Thybulle couldn’t hit it. Harden later served him a dunk off a cut, and Thybulle botched it. Great shooters sometimes miss open shots. That’s fine. Thybulle is shooting 28 percent from deep this season, and 32 percent from beyond the arc for his career — that ain’t great. 

The damning part isn’t that he misses an open look in a vacuum. The problem is that it happens way too often. You might as well refer to whichever side of the court he’s on as the ’empty side’, because his individual assignment either sags off by the lane or roams nearby to help on the other Sixers. Having anyone in your rotation with Thybulle’s deficits, in a world where you have a two-man offensive machine in Embiid and Harden, by themselves, is malpractice. The Sixers don’t really have much of a choice for the remainder of this season — he’s their best perimeter defender. But, Thybulle is a restricted free agent after next season. If we’re assuming the market value of an All-NBA defender with extremely limited offensive game is, say, $12-15 million per year, there is absolutely a conversation to have about whether he’s worth an extension. If you determine that he’s not, this offseason is the best time to gauge the market.

Second Quarter

Doc Rivers had a pair of flat-out dreadful lineups that hurt the Sixers. The first was Harden, Danny Green, Furkan Korkmaz, Georges Niang, and Paul Millsap. That lineup took the Sixers to the end of the first quarter, turning a 5-point deficit into 8 points heading into the second quarter. Rivers then started the second quarter with Harden, Shake Milton, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Paul Millsap.

Those lineups are theoretically fine on offense — if Harden puts on his scoring cap once it becomes clear that no one else on the floor has anything going. The Knicks pushed their lead to 16 points very early in the second quarter. And Harden maintained his pass-first mentality up until that point. He had 19 points in the first half, something that is attainable as he catches up on sleep. But, he was far too passive at moments in which the Sixers needed him to be the scorer. 

The real damage was done on defense. Each of those lineups is completely bereft of defensive stature. To make matters worse, the Sixers were switching. That’s something that’s inevitably going to happen when Harden is on the floor. that’s the scheme he likes. But it’s then on Rivers to surround him with players who can defend in a switch. No one in those lineups really can. It’s irresponsible business to deploy a switch when every player on the floor is a mismatch for at least one of the players on the opposing offense. 

We all know Rivers is going to prioritize guys who are closer to their 50s over players closer to the legal drinking age. But, Millsap has been horrendous in virtually every minute he’s played since the team returned from the All-Star break. He cannot move laterally, so the Sixers are limited in appropriate defensive schemes they can use. So, pencil them in for drop coverage. Even in a drop, Millsap has looked slow matching up with anyone around the rim. And on offense, there’s very little lift under his feet no matter what he does. Millsap has had a minuscule sample size here in Philadelphia, but he’s shown many of the same inadequacies that got him benched in Brooklyn. 

The Sixers are no stranger to losing playoff series by the margin of backup center minutes. The right thing for Rivers to do is abandon his adoration for veterans beyond their last legs. Instead, he should entrust the likes of Paul Reed and Charles Bassey with those minutes. It’s not like Embiid will be playing fewer than 40 minutes per game in the playoffs, anyway.

Third Quarter

The Sixers closed the second frame out with a layup from Harris to cut the deficit to 7 points ahead of halftime. From that, alone, you could feel the tides changing against the Knicks. And sure enough, that further reflected as truth early in the third frame. Embiid converted an absurd finish through a foul and followed it with a triple to give himself 6 points in less than a minute of play in the third quarter.

That little shot of adrenaline catapulted Embiid’s quarter — on both ends of the floor. The offensive output — 10 points and a pair of assists — ignited the crowd. And Embiid fed off of it. After a disengaged first half on both ends, the MVP frontrunner turned in a masterful defensive quarter. Embiid anchored a defense that gave up just 19 points in the frame.

Meanwhile, the rest of the roster was doused in gasoline by Embiid’s scoring total and subsequently lit on fire by the hot hand. Niang hit a pair of triples. Maxey connected on a crowd-electrifying step-back three. Green ripped the cord on an attempt from the corner. In totality, it was a 38-19 dismantling by Philadelphia in the penultimate quarter of regulation. What was a 16-point deficit was flipped into a 13-point Philly advantage.

Fourth Quarter

Of all the impressive developments in Tyrese Maxey’s game, one of the more underrated is his willingness to clash with bigger bodies at the rim. That willingness has fluctuated. It was seldom there last season. It was status quo for the first week of this season. But, the second-year guard quickly stopped fading across the lane to avoid contact on finishes. And his production rose almost linearly with that development.

But now, Maxey isn’t just attacking lines to the rim. He’s seeing bigger bodies in his way and galloping right at them, head on. There will be times when he powers through for acrobatic finishes. But given his size and lack of vertical athleticism, there will be at least as many times where bigger defenders will be equal to his climb. But, that doesn’t strike fear in Maxey. If anything, the prospect that a bigger defender could confront him at the top inspires confidence that he can draw shooting fouls. Maxey saw much bigger Knicks lingering at the rim and went right at them on a number of occasions on Wednesday. He didn’t finish through the contact. Rather, he held strong and made them commit fouls.

Doing that is not nearly as simple as it sounds, by the way. You have to have the audacity to go face-to-face with an iron giant, comparatively speaking. But, you also have to be willing to take momentum-shifting contact while you’re in the air. Suspended in the air after going up with a brick wall, you have to be unafraid of losing body control. And Maxey was eager to confront all of those things. 

He was ultimately rewarded for those moments of strength. Maxey got to the charity stripe as a result of those collisions more often than not on Wednesday. And an off-balance, desperation triple to beat the shot clock late in the final quarter sealed the Knicks’ fate on Wednesday. Make that a 31-point turnaround through the course of the game.

The inevitable happened on Wednesday. After 2 games of pristine play, the Sixers were challenged with a 16-point deficit. But even when Harden struggled to identify moments to be an aggressive scorer, Embiid struggled to stay engaged, and Maxey floated by without receiving touches, the Sixers stayed together and found a way to correct themselves in time to win the game. Tested ever so slightly by some early adversity, the Sixers flexed a bit and orchestrated a 31-point turnaround in the game. 

The Sixers will be their own worst enemies when all is said and done this season, and their will to respond to adversity is as important as any skill they can synergize together. 

The Sixers (38-23) will host the Cleveland Cavaliers (36-26) on Friday night. Tip-off is set for 7 PM, EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.