The Sixers (4-5) hosted the New York Knicks (3-4) on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from a defeat at the hands of the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. New York wanted to snap a three-game losing streak. The Sixers’ offense crumbled down the stretch in a 106-104 defeat.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
The Knicks were without Feron Hunt and Trevor Keels, who were on Two-Way assignments with the Knicks’ G-League affiliate.
Tom Thibodeau started Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson.
Joel Embiid remained out for the Sixers with a non-Covid illness.
The Sixers were without James Harden, who is expected to miss approximately a month with a strained tendon in his right foot. Prior to Friday’s game, head coach Doc Rivers indicated that the final diagnosis was more positive than what the Sixers’ anticipated it would be. Harden will be re-evaluated in approximately two weeks, the Sixers said on Thursday.
Danuel House Jr. was out with a non-Covid illness.
Jaden Springer was on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Michael Foster Jr. and Julian Champagnie were on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were out, as well.
Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, De’Anthony Melton, PJ Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Montrezl Harrell.
The Sixers’ chances of winning this game rested largely on the abilities of Maxey and Harris to shoulder the load on offense. Both answered in their own ways. Maxey scored 31 on a nearly even diet of twos and threes. He also leveraged the attention he garners to the tune of seven assists. Harris, on the other hand, spaced out for seven three-point attempts against eight two-point looks. He wasn’t shy letting it fly off the catch. But faced with higher usage in the absence of Embiid and Harden, Harris was empowered to dabble in pull-up midrange jumpers and post-ups. He scored 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
As good as Danny Green was for the Sixers, Melton looks like a major win relative to cost. He had one of his most dynamic games as a Sixer, sprinkling a couple length-based defensive gems in with a handful of catch-and-shoot jumpers. The best thing he did on Friday was use his vision. Many role-playing guards lack that dimension of their offensive package, but Melton connected the main hubs to the rest of the offense to the tune of nine assists.
Harrell is going to lead the NBA in bellows at the crowd per game. That dude wants everyone to know when he gets a tough shot to fall at the rim. Despite his struggles finishing at the cup in the first nine games, Harrell was quite effective at the rim in this game. It wasn’t always pretty or smooth. But, he just refused to be denied, earning trips to the charity stripe along the way.
Paul Reed was given a lot of liberty to be himself on the court in this game, and he injected energy into a team that sometimes just needed anything good to happen on either end as they fought through the troughs of being extremely short-handed. He recorded 6 steals in this affair, stepping over to disrupt New York’s offense when they found creases to attack downhill. Reed put his signature on a handful of defensive stops in the second half that Harrell simply doesn’t have the agility or length to author.
The Knicks committed 3 fouls in the first 90 seconds of the game. Philadelphia only drew three fouls the rest of the first quarter. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, either. The Sixers had little trouble cracking New York’s perimeter defense, attempting 14 shots within 14 feet of the basket in the first quarter. The inability to goad the Knicks into fouls lied in Philadelphia’s tendency to stop short of the rim once they got inside the arc. Whether it was Maxey, Harris, Melton, or someone else, the Sixers settled for in-between shots. And if you aren’t relentless in getting to the basket, you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt from the officials very often.
Once Embiid was revealed to be out for this game, you knew the Sixers were going to struggle to defend the Knicks’ size. Even though the Knicks don’t have a dynamic seven-foot shooting threat to pick smaller teams apart like Kristaps Porzingis did on Monday and Wednesday, New York has strong bodies capable of wearing you down. They got off to a slow start scoring the ball, but that size eventually settled in and beat the Sixers to the boards for second-chance opportunities and shots inside.
Any chance Philadelphia had of staying out in front of New York depended squarely upon a steady flow of offense. The Sixers threatened a double-digit lead in the opening quarter while the Knicks couldn’t figure anything out, but the scoring clogged dramatically in the second quarter.
With three rotation players out, Rivers was hamstrung by what he could do with his lineups, but there was a lineup that included Korkmaz and Thybulle. Predictably, the offense drew dead, and that was where the Knicks built their momentum in the first half. Of course, neither team helped themselves, combining for 22 turnovers before halftime. The Knicks committed 14, silencing their own threat of pulling far ahead.
After the game, Rivers said there were stretches during which he was satisfied with his team’s drive-and-kick offense. But as the points became fewer and further between in the guts of the game, I didn’t sense an offensive structure. It was a bunch of passing along the perimeter until they were working against the shot clock, and then it was on the ball-handler to try to make something happen. There was no pick-and-roll game, which is incomprehensible considering you have a pick-and-pop forward in Harris and a screen-and-crash big in Harrell. There was no double-drag, Spain pick-and-roll, or regular pick-and-roll. It was just drive, kick, and react.
Rivers reasoned that he put both Harrell and Reed on the floor at the same time in the last two minutes of the game because he wanted to maximize his team’s rebounding. My theory is that he intended to bring Reed in for Harrell, but the dead ball that enabled him to put Reed in was a foul that sent Harrell to the free throw line. I guess he thought he could survive it for a possession, but that was really where the Sixers lost control. Harrell ended up on Barrett, who won the mismatch. The play unfolded into a left-wing triple from Obi Toppin to give the Knicks a lead they would not relinquish.
Maxey leaned a bit heavy into the three-point shots for my liking. I get he has to have the ball in his hands a ton with both Embiid and Harden out. But, it felt like there were a handful of occasions in which he neglected the drive in favor of settling for triples. Maxey shot 10-for-29 in the game and 4-for-13 from beyond the arc. Some nights, he’ll get that many good looks from deep. But, I didn’t come away feeling like the result was a case of just being off the mark. It felt like he shot himself into an inefficient night by falling in love with difficult jumpers.
A pair of fans decided to have a dance battle to the tune of the music that played during a timeout early in the first quarter. Encouraged by immense crowd support, both took their shirts off. I think it’s safe to say that no one wanted what either gentleman had to show. In many ways, it was symbolic of what both teams produced on offense. Burn the film.
The Sixers (4-6) will host the Phoenix Suns (6-1) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 PM, Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBA TV.