Joel Embiid
Joel Embiid

The Sixers (2-1) wrapped up a two-game roadie in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks (2-1) on Tuesday. Philadelphia was looking to improve to 3-1 before heading back to The Center. The Knicks were looking to improve to 3-1 or better for the first time since 2012. A 39-16 thrashing in the second quarter spelled death for Philly in a 112-99 defeat.

Before we get to the action, let’s set the scene.

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without Shake Milton (sprained right ankle) and Grant Riller (recovering from torn meniscus, left knee). Jaden Springer and Aaron Henry were on G-League assignments. Ben Simmons continued to be away from the team due to personal reasons.

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The Knicks were without Nerlens Noel (sore left knee) and Luka Samanic (G-League Two-Way assignment).

Tom Thibodeau started Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson.

First Half

The Sixers decided to modernize their offense for the New York faithful on Tuesday night. Six of Philadelphia’s first ten field goal attempts came from beyond the arc. Tobias Harris, of all people, elevated for four triples in the first quarter of play.

Harris is a much better player than for which the peanut gallery likes to give him credit. He’s also a more adequate self-provisioning shot-creator than some observers indicate. But, he’d be a better fit next to Embiid if he kept that volume up. Four attempts in the first quarter for Harris probably isn’t a sustainable pace unless he woke up one of the last two mornings and decided to markedly change his style of play. But, taking 5 or 6 threes per contest — even if it drops his efficiency by a couple of percentage points — wouldn’t shake Harris’ game too much.

Doubling The Process

Such a high volume to open the game for a team that typically doesn’t dial up triples at such a pace, especially if Tobias Harris is contributing to the number of attempts, is attributable to two primary factors. First, the Knicks are a big team. Four of their five starters are at least 6-foot-6. A team of that size — built on a defensive identity — is going to discourage driving, especially when the opposition starts four somewhat undersized players. It’s just way easier to make extra passes to generate decent looks on threes in such an environment.

The other factor, which might as well be a rule to live by, is that Embiid is getting doubled. And, boy, was he. The Knicks were sending RJ Barrett for baseline double-teams often in the first frame. That’s not a bad strategy at all. Smothering Embiid with size makes a ton of sense. But, Barrett was rushing to help Robinson too early. Embiid has worked to become a much more polished passer out of the post and out of the face-up in recent seasons. So, sending ill-timed doubles was livable in years past. But Embiid punishes much more consistently now.

Whether it was sending missiles to the corner or leveraging his gravity as a shooter to draw the extra defender over more quickly, Embiid’s improvement as a playmaker with multiple defenders converging aids the three-point volume. While it was for the worse throughout the first half, the attention Embiid commanded and his aptitude in reading the double and delivering accurate passes boosted that three-point volume.

Speaking of the big fella, if he’s going to be an MVP candidate, he must take control of games when the momentum starts to escape the Sixers. He might be dealing with a sore knee. He might not feel like boxing with a physical team like the Knicks around the basket. But, sloppy turnovers, ill-advised perimeter shots, and lethargy on both ends of the floor breed positive energy for the opponent and completely takes the wind out of the Sixers. Embiid was clearly not in the mood to dance on Tuesday, and the Sixers disintegrated in the second quarter.

Second Half

The critics rightfully pile on Ben Simmons for not developing his offensive game at all through four NBA seasons. But the same must apply to Matisse Thybulle, as well. Positioning within draft class matters a bit, but you don’t expect complete stagnance out of any draftee. Perhaps Thybulle has become more disciplined in avoiding fouls and adept at identifying opportunities to cut to the rim, but his jump-shooting has regressed dramatically since his rookie campaign.

Thybulle’s lack of progression as an offensive player — and his inability to consistently neutralize individual matchups — is particularly concerning considering that Philadelphia will have to make a decision about a rookie extension in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps Thybulle and his representation will be realistic in assessing his value. But if there’s an inkling otherwise, Philadelphia needs to have a real conversation about moving him before they lock themselves into an expensive, long-term relationship.

Maxey Is Not Quite Ready To Be A Starting Point Guard

Speaking of youngsters that aren’t quite there yet, the early returns suggest that Maxey just isn’t ready to commandeer the starting point guard position. The long jumper hasn’t developed yet, and Maxey tends to pass up midrange jumpers when the longer ones don’t fall.

That means his points are coming exclusively at the rim. While Maxey’s aptitude as a finisher never seems to leave him, he’s still under-sized and often gets blocked or disrupted as he looks for angles to kiss the ball off the glass. Beyond that, his playmaking isn’t good enough to warrant starter status. When Maxey is off the ball, he doesn’t really have any idea where to stand. So, he hurts the team’s spacing. 

Unfortunately, there might not be much of an option other than to live with his growing pains. I mean, what, are they going to start Shake Milton?

The outcome of this game might’ve been different had the Sixers defended the three-point line at all. Throughout the game, the Knicks were getting comfortable looks at threes because the Sixers were not communicating well on screens. Even when Philly made their push, those defensive woes made it impossible for the Sixers to really put any extended run together.

The bottom line — many fans and some media might not want to admit this, but the Sixers have desperately missed an engaged Ben Simmons in each of their two losses thus far. The offensive end might not always be pretty, but the defensive end would have many fewer question marks than it does right now. 

Fast Break Points

Tobias Harris had a quiet 23 points on 10-for-18 shooting with 9 rebounds, 9 assists, and just 1 turnover. Sneakily great box score on an otherwise gross night for the Sixers.

Philadelphia (2-2) will look to right their wrongs on Thursday when they host the Detroit Pistons (0-3). Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.