NEW YORK — If you were hoping for Christmas entertainment, the Sixers and Knicks provided it Sunday afternoon.
In a back-and-forth, star-centric game, the Sixers came away with an eighth consecutive victory by leaning on their big names.
Joel Embiid had 35 points in a 119-112 win at Madison Square Garden. James Harden posted 29 points, 13 assists and four steals.
Julius Randle recorded 35 points. Jalen Brunson scored 23 points and dished out 11 assists.
Tyrese Maxey (left foot fracture) remained out for the Sixers, though he did make the trip with the team to New York. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said Friday that Maxey is “close” to returning.
Now 20-12 this season, the Sixers will play Game 2 of their four-game road trip on Tuesday against the Wizards. Here are observations on their Christmas win:
Slow start for Embiid, Sixers’ defense
The Sixers fell behind early mainly because they let the Knicks be comfortable on offense. Randle eased into a nice rhythm on his way to 25 first-half points.
In a Nov. 4 home loss to New York without Embiid and Harden, the Sixers held a fourth-quarter lead in large part because New York committed 21 giveaways and struggled with pesky, aggressive defense. On Sunday, the Knicks had zero turnovers in the first quarter.
While Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t enjoy tons of high-risk gambles, his team played smart, physical defense and the Sixers didn’t initially respond to it well. On an after-timeout play, the Sixers tried to find Embiid at the nail off of a pick-and-roll with Shake Milton. Randle rotated sharply to pick the pass off and create an Immanuel Quickley transition dunk.
Mitchell Robinson also did good work on Embiid. It’s now rare to see any opponent not double team Embiid over and over again, but the Knicks trusted Robinson to hold his own. He stripped the ball from Embiid on one play in the post, was exemplary in drop pick-and-roll coverage and played solid defense at the nail against last year’s MVP runner-up. After Embiid bailed out a scrappy Sixers possession with a top-of-the-key three, RJ Barrett answered from deep. The Sixers’ star big man then turned the ball over on the team’s next trip, Brunson broke free for a layup, and New York eventually seized a 30-16 lead when Embiid exited.
Embiid jokingly referenced the unusual 12 p.m. start time, but he took responsibility for the Sixers again needing to come back from a double-digit deficit.
“I started off the game soft,” he said. “You could say it was a little early, but I started off the game soft. I was throwing up layups and air balls and all that stuff, and I wasn’t physical. In that third quarter, I started feeling us get back into it and I just wanted to make sure that I took over and kept us close.”
Drawn fouls, a little luck help Sixers get back in it
The Knicks are strong on the offensive glass — third in offensive rebounding percentage entering the game, per Cleaning the Glass — and they sure looked like it in the first half against the Sixers, who were clearly slow to react on several plays.
In the first half, New York grabbed eight offensive boards (five by Robinson) and scored 19 second-chance points. The Sixers mustered just three second-chance points before intermission.
Despite that major disadvantage, the Sixers trailed by only three points at halftime thanks to their stars’ persistence about drawing fouls. Embiid got the third on Robinson with 4:04 left in the second and was especially determined to battle for post position and create contact against Jericho Sims. Even when the team is floundering, free throws from Harden and Embiid are so often a realistic path back into the game for the Sixers. The team also picked up some stops through decent zone defense.
“We just hung in there,” Rivers said. “You never know how these afternoon games are going to start. I thought the first quarter, they had all the energy. Killed us on the glass all first half. I thought they were quicker to everything. I thought the end of the second quarter kind of got us into it. We got a couple of stops, and then we started pushing the ball up the floor and running. I thought that helped.”
The second quarter concluded with a play almost entirely attributable to luck, though. With Brunson searching for a shot at the end of the half, Milton picked up the Sixers’ second forced turnover before flinging the ball from the Knicks’ half-court logo. Somehow, he banked it in.
Harden flips the script
The Sixers were irritated by the officiating on many occasions.
De’Anthony Melton’s foul trouble was especially unfortunate. The 24-year-old started 5 for 5 from the floor. Every one of those attempts was from long distance, too, and the final one tied the game at 69-all. However, Melton kept being whistled for untimely fouls. Following his fourth early in the third quarter, he sat for nearly 13 minutes of game action.
Without Melton, the Sixers still managed to score plenty. The individual shotmaking was fantastic on both sides most of the afternoon. After making a tough turnaround jumper and smooth jump hook, Embiid showcased his patience and vision by waiting for the Knicks’ help defense to shift just a touch too far in his direction and finding P.J. Tucker for an and-one layup. As Embiid watched from the bench late in the third and early in the fourth period, Harden suddenly appeared unstoppable from long distance. He poured in 10 points on a mere three field-goal attempts (two three-pointers and a four-point play) in approximately 82 seconds. Harden then assisted a Georges Niang three to put the Sixers up 101-98.
The zone remained useful for the Sixers with Melton on the bench, too, helping Rivers feel fine with riding the Harden-Niang two-man game despite neither player being among the team’s top individual defenders.
“I just think the game dictates it,” Rivers said. “Going into tonight, we had basically decided, ‘We’re going zone a lot.’ We showed it a couple times in the first half, which we didn’t want to do, because when you can get to zone in the second half, it’s hard to make adjustments in timeouts (against) zones. It’s a lot easier (to adjust) at halftime. So I thought we did a good job of holding it, for the most part, until the second half.”
Harden kept generating open looks for Niang, who remained correctly unabashed about taking them and finished with 16 points. Back-to-back Niang triples stretched the Sixers’ lead to 108-100 and forced a Knicks timeout.
“It’s great,” Niang said earlier this month of playing next to Harden. “When I come up, I set a screen. My guy double teams James, he passes it to me and I get some open shots. No, I’m excited to have James back. James is a tremendous playmaker. We need him, especially when he’s playing at a high level.”
The tone of that comment from Niang was playful, but Harden does sometimes make his teammates’ lives seem that simple. Yet again, the Sixers’ star power proved decisive and allowed them to overcome early-game issues.
“I think we’re growing confidence,” Rivers said. “We want to still grow it, obviously. It’s almost a replay of the game the other night (against the Clippers), but better tonight. Being down didn’t phase the group. They have an inner confidence, and that’s a good thing for your team.”
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