After spending the Christmas holiday with their families instead of on the court yesterday, the Sixers took on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. It was their second game of the 2020-21 season, and the first of a back-to-back roadie. The Sixers, powered by Joel Embiid’s 27 points and 10 rebounds, pulled away from the Knicks in the second half to improve to 2-0 on the season. 

Before we jump into the game, some notes.

Contextual Notes

The Knicks were without Austin Rivers (sore groin), Omari Spellman (sore right knee), and rookies Immanuel Quickley (sore left hip) and Obi Toppin (sore right calf). Toppin, of course, was the eighth overall pick in last month’s draft. New York started Elfrid Payton, RJ Barrett, Reggie Bullock, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson.

All Sixers were available to play on Saturday. Doc Rivers continued with his starting unit of Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Half

Julius Randle got off to an incredibly hot start in the first quarter. He scored 9 points on 4-for-4 shooting in the first three-and-a-half minutes of play. There was an element of luck to his outburst, as he connected on some incredibly difficult fadeaway jumpers. Some of that production was also a result of miscommunications on defense, as Randle cashed five points on open looks generated by poor pick-and-roll defense. Coach Rivers’ election to match Ben Simmons with RJ Barrett from the get-go played a factor, as well. Tobias Harris, who is mismatched against Randle, was the default assignment. While there does come a point when Harris has to sink or swim on the defensive end of the floor, your best perimeter defender should take on the task of the opposition’s best perimeter player.

While the defensive side of the rock was certainly problematic, Harris did find some success on the offensive end after a putrid performance in the season-opener. For weeks, Doc Rivers has hammered home that Harris has to play with less hesitation. In the first frame of regulation, Harris was reacting to defenses quickly and not overthinking plays. His actions were quick and clean, and the result positive. The forward scored 7 points in the first quarter, including a pull-up triple from the top of the arc. Harris notably struggled from deep in the final preseason game and the opener on Wednesday. So, his connection on the triple without hesitating on the attempt at all is something he can keep in his frame of reference.

Embiid Likes The Bright Lights Of The Garden

The Sixers’ superstar came to play on Saturday night, depositing twenty points in the first half. The big fella did so on just twelve field goal attempts and seven free throw attempts. The production he put forth in the former portion of the game was a credit to his teammates. Simmons did a tremendous job of feeding his co-star in spots that were particularly favorable for him to score. Embiid caught a number of passes right below the rim where all he had to do was create some back-side space under the basket and go up strong. ‘The Process’ also connected on a number of jump shots from his usual locations on the perimeter. Following the victory, Doc Rivers offered some insight into what enabled Embiid to dominate: “Joel is getting more and more confident in the post,” Rivers said. “Because of the movement we have. You think about it today, the other day we have more shooters on the floor. Tonight, Joel was effective with Ben on the floor cutting. It’s good that you can be effective with both looks.” Embiid, I might add, finished the game with just one turnover.

The Defense Isn’t There Yet

The Sixers committed just four turnovers in the first half, and Embiid contributed 20 of the team’s 60 first half points. That is typically an equation solving out to a comfortable lead going into halftime. However, they went into the second half leading by just five points. That translates to very poor play on the defensive end of the court. The Sixers were not getting back quickly in transition, and they allowed bad habits to build on themselves. The Knicks got to the free throw line fourteen times, compared to Philadelphia’s twelve. The first half of play exhibited poor discipline on shot fakes and failure to complete possessions by holding the Knicks to a single shot. This matchup, on paper, should have been far more disproportionate in Philly’s favor heading into the second half.

Second Half

Philadelphia woke up at halftime. Excellent ball movement on the offensive end pulled the New York defense out of position, and the Sixers found themselves staring at a number of open triples. Curry cashed in on a handful of opportunities, and Danny Green canned one from the left corner.

Following the victory, Coach Rivers talked about the Sixers’ identity as a selfless group: “It’s who we’re going to have to be. If we’re gonna have to rely on one guy or two guys, we’re not gonna win. But when you can get everybody involved, your main two guys are still going to get all of their numbers. But, what they’re doing and what I love so far, Joel and Ben are making Seth, Tobias, and everyone else around them better players. That’s exactly what we want them to do.” Simmons noticed the increased ball movement, as well, telling reporters that the offense “felt like the Harlem Globetrotters, we were passing the ball so much”.

I do wonder how Simmons feels about his skills being utilized in a non-flashy context. He obviously doesn’t mind passing the ball, but his ‘wow’-factor comes alive in an open-court environment. His usage in the third frame was a lot of drive-and-kick action, or ‘hot potato’ passes around the lane. That style of play certainly unlocks Simmons’ best offensive feature, but it doesn’t necessarily illustrate his stardom.

Nightmares For RJ Barrett

This game was, without question, an absolute headache for RJ Barrett. Simmons had him solved from the tip, and Barrett could do virtually nothing. He finished the night 2-for-15 from the field. Of Simmons’ defense, Rivers said, “He was terrific. He used his size, he used his length. His instincts are unbelievable, something I didn’t know until now coaching him.” Simmons added: “You know, he’s a good player. He’s not a bad player. He can knock down those shots. I just try to give him some different looks. Make sure he felt me, make sure I have that presence every night, no matter who is out there.” 

The Sixers improved upon their sixteen-turnover performance in the opener, cutting that total to just twelve against the Knicks. That tangible improvement this early in the season is somewhat surprising, but I suppose that’s a product of both better spacing and more of an offensive structure.

The Sixers will visit Cleveland to play the Cavaliers tomorrow, completing their first back-to-back of the season. Tip-off is at 7:30 PM, EST.