Tobias Harris thoughtful

The Philadelphia 76ers (27-12) hosted the New York Knicks (20-20) on Tuesday night. It was their second matchup this season. The Sixers won the first meeting in New York, 109-89, to improve to 2-0 on the season. Philly was looking to run their current winning streak to six games. The Knicks, on the other hand, were looking to rebound from a close loss in Brooklyn on Monday night. Tobias Harris scored eight of his 30 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter to seal a 99-96 victory for the Sixers.

Before we get to the action, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Aside from Embiid, all Sixers were available for this game. The starting unit was status quo.

The Knicks were without Elfrid Payton (strained right hamstring), Austin Rivers (personal reasons), Mitchell Robinson (recovering from surgery on right hand), and Derrick Rose (health and safety protocol). Tom Thibodeau started Immanuel Quickley, RJ Barrett, Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle, and Nerlens Noel.

First Half

The Sixers, fresh off a throttling of the San Antonio Spurs, started off this game with a hint of lethargy. Usually, you can test the level of urgency and focus by looking at their turnover numbers in the first few minutes of play. The turnovers–just two in the first four minutes of play–were not necessarily the issue. More than anything, the Sixers were just missing shots. There’s not a lot to hang your head on when shots aren’t falling. The game is the game, always.

Again, if shots simply fell for the Sixers, you wouldn’t really care about the four offensive rebounds that the Knicks secured. Nonetheless, the Sixers trailed by one point after the opening quarter. With the Knicks missing thirteen of their 22 field goal attempts and only attempting one free throw, that they led the game after the first frame is more an indictment of the Sixers’ defensive rebounding effort than anything. New York secured four offensive rebounds in the first quarter, a number of which were long off the rim.

That comes down to the Sixers simply not finishing defensive possessions. They were generating misses, but stopping short of securing the boards. The Knicks were out-hustling and out-muscling them to offensive rebounds, and generating second-chance opportunities as a result. If you’re missing shots and creating extra possessions off of those misses, you’re going to eventually convert those bonus chances.

“Everybody tried to make individual plays.”

The defensive rebounding issue that ailed the Sixers in the first quarter largely subsided in the second. However, the lethargy remained. The Sixers lacked toughness on the defensive side of the ball, forfeiting dribble-penetration and allowing the Knicks to get close and personal with the rim. The Knicks attempted sixteen free throws in the second frame. They were forcing the Sixers to give effort on the defensive end or foul to try and stop the attack.

On the offensive end, things weren’t much better. Philadelphia committed seven turnovers in the first half and missed 60 percent of their field goal attempts. While you don’t expect the Sixers to get to the line quite like they do with Embiid on the court, they still got there for twelve attempts in the first half. However, they made only eight of those. So, what do you get when you combine sluggish defense, turnovers from poor focus, and a bevy of missed free throws? You get a less-than-professional effort.

After the victory, Rivers made it clear he was not happy with his team’s first half performance. “I was really frustrated in the first half. The first five possessions of the game, I think they had four uncontested shots. We’re just standing there,” Rivers said. “We couldn’t get open, they got up into our bodies and we just thought we would casually come to the ball. Everybody tried to make individual plays. So, I wasn’t real happy in the first half or at halftime, I can tell you that.”

Tony Bradley Comes Back To Earth

Tony Bradley did not do much to help avoid the eight-point halftime deficit. There were a number of possessions featuring Bradley getting looks right below the rim, but his hands weren’t prepared for the plays. The Knicks, who proved to be quite the handsy team in the first half, were able to take advantage and prevent his scores by stripping the ball from him on a number of occasions.

The little things always compound, and there were at least three instances in which the Sixers left points on the board because Bradley couldn’t keep a tight grip on the rock. He’s been outstanding lately and that certainly wasn’t the only reason for the deficit, but the Sixers need him to be the best version of himself every night while Embiid is absent.

Second Half

I would imagine it is quite frustrating for an NBA team when you think you have a really good quarter, and still find yourself in a hole similar to the one in which you opened the quarter. Shots finally started falling for Philadelphia, but the Sixers just couldn’t amass a sequence of scores and stops. They also started switching on screens, which enabled the Knicks to target the weakest link in Philly’s defense. As such, the scrappy Knicks were able to get to the rim and generate high-percentage shots. While the Sixers were making shots, it was essentially a basket trade-off. The difference after three quarters was nearly identical to the difference after the first half.

“For me, that’s just re-affirming that to myself.”

The fourth quarter was closing time for the Sixers. But, in order to get to closing time, the Sixers had to battle back to turn a nine-point deficit into an even game. They did just that, stifling the New York offense with newfound urgency on the defensive side of the ball. The Sixers held the Knicks to just two made field goals over the final six minutes of the fourth quarter to claw back into the contest. But, with the game coming to a close and neither team pulling away, the Sixers needed a closer to step up and slam the door on the Knicks.

“I’m an All-Star,” Harris bellowed as he scored 2 of his 8 crunch time points. Harris was able to answer the call when the Sixers needed a hero to step up in crunch time. He sealed the Knicks’ fate by bullying mismatches down to the post before executing them with his signature turn-around jumpers. Harris insisted that that phraseology was more about proving his value on the basketball court to himself. “For me, that’s just re-affirming that to myself,” Harris said after the victory.

“I mean, I know the fans know that, but re-affirming that to them and to myself, especially, making those big plays. It’s like one of those, I try to just find motivation in different areas. That’s one of them. On top of that, I think just the challenge of having Joel out is a new challenge that’s presented for us as a team. I want to embrace that challenge because now I know how good of a team we are with him. I know how good of a team we are even without having him. Obviously, we need him. But at the same time, I embrace all those challenges.”

“He allowed us to guard Randle one-on-one, for the most part.”

Harris also silenced Julius Randle in the final minutes of play. Harris was tremendous in disrupting Randle’s attacks. While Randle may have him by a few pounds of muscle, Harris has improved his hands on the defensive side of the court. He was able to get his hands on the ball and strip the All-Star forward. Randle, clearly perturbed by Harris’ activity, scored just one point in the fourth quarter. The Sixer defense has been perhaps their most consistent positive over the past month, and they certainly rode that strength to victory in this game.

Rivers commended Harris’ defense after the win. “I think we looked at Tobias 30 [points]. Defensively tonight, Tobias was phenomenal,” Rivers said. “He was as good as I’ve ever seen him, got a ton of deflections, got his hand in there on Randle. I thought that was the key to the game, was Tobias Harris’ defense. He allowed us to guard Randle one-on-one, for the most part. That’s hard to do because Randle is a heck of a player. I thought that was the key to the game.”

Philadelphia (28-12) will host the Milwaukee Bucks (25-14) on Wednesday. Tip-off is set for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.