The Sixers’ first three wins after the All-Star break were all decided well before the final minutes.
Tuesday night’s 99-96 victory over the Knicks was a different story. The Sixers came back from down nine entering the final period to earn their sixth straight win overall and improve to 28-12.
RJ Barrett misfired on a short jumper that could’ve tied the game with approximately 20 seconds remaining. Furkan Korkmaz was then intentionally fouled and made one of two free throws. Immanuel Quickley missed another potential game-tying shot on the ensuing possession, and the Sixers sealed the deal from there.
“The game was physical — a lot of grabbing, a lot of fouls both ways,” Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “Too much frustration, in my opinion. It was a good test for us, because these are how some of the playoff games will be. Not all of them, but you’ll have a few like this, and you have to find a way to win. To win this game tonight without Joel (Embiid) on the floor and things are not going your way early was a big statement by this team.”
Tobias Harris and Seth Curry were the Sixers’ leading scorers with 30 and 20 points, respectively. Ben Simmons had 16 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists, while Julius Randle led the Knicks with 19 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists.
The Sixers will try to extend their streak to seven Wednesday night when they play the Bucks. Here are three observations on their gritty win over New York:
The same starters the Sixers used in Sunday night’s 35-point win over the Spurs had trouble scoring in their first stint.
Danny Green, after scoring 11 of the Sixers’ first 15 points against San Antonio, missed his first five shots. The Sixers as a team started 2 for 11. New York played physical, high-effort defense, putting constant pressure far from the hoop on Green, Curry and Harris and making it difficult for the Sixers to establish a rhythm.
Both the Sixers and Knicks shot 40.9 percent from the floor in the first period, a byproduct of good defensive focus and wayward outside shooting. As Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey observed on Twitter, it felt like the game was taking place in a different century.
Green eventually made a shot and picked up four steals and a block, though his night didn’t improve much offensively. A 1-for-10 shooting performance from a starter is certainly harder to overcome with Embiid (who turned 27 years old Tuesday) sidelined by a left knee bone bruise. Korkmaz closed the game over Green.
Not for the first time this season, the Sixers’ turnovers were costly, spurring New York’s transition offense. The Knicks, meanwhile, prevented the Sixers from having many easy fast-break chances as the game was mostly played on their terms.
All told, the Sixers’ 12 turnovers led to 22 Knicks points. The Sixers took excellent care of the ball down the stretch, not turning the ball over once in the fourth quarter.
Relying on Harris
With the Sixers’ offense struggling late in the second quarter and the team frustrated by the officiating, Harris made two important threes and Simmons drove in for an and-one layup to tie the game.
The Knicks weren’t discouraged by that brief swing in momentum, though, scoring seven straight points and building an eight-point halftime lead. Simmons, Harris and Dwight Howard posted 34 of the Sixers’ 48 first-half points. Their teammates shot just 4 for 21 from the floor.
Curry started rolling early in the third quarter, converting a four-point play, two catch-and-shoot threes and a runner. He also made a key go-ahead three in the fourth.
As for Harris, he’s demonstrated a knack this season for coming through when the Sixers are desperate for a hoop. After a quiet stretch, he produced two key buckets late in the fourth. He yelled out, “I’m an All-Star” following his basket to put the Sixers up four.
“That’s just re-affirming that to myself,” Harris said. “I know the fans know that, but re-affirming that to them and to myself, especially making those big plays. I try to just find motivation in different areas. That’s one of them, and then on top of that I think just the challenge of having Joel out. It’s a new challenge that’s presented for us as a team and I want to embrace that challenge, because I know how good of a team we are with him, and 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. What anybody has to say, it doesn’t really affect myself because I know when I look everyone in that locker room in the eye before the game, we’re ready to go out there and win.”
They didn’t always match up because neither team minded switching, but the Harris vs. Randle matchup was a fun one to watch. Both players have developed into leaders their teams can lean on, with Randle’s passing and Harris’ ability to fight through contact to reach his preferred spots qualities that jumped out Tuesday.
Rivers also wanted to be sure Harris’ defense wasn’t overlooked.
“Defensively tonight, Tobias was phenomenal,” he said. “He was as good as I’ve ever seen him. Got a ton of deflections, got his hands in there on Randle. I thought that was the key to the game — Tobias Harris’ defense. He allowed us to guard Randle 1-on-1, 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.”
Howard plays a big role
Howard had a tip-in late in the first quarter and a put-back slam early in the second.
Outside of his screening, rolling and offensive rebounding, there wasn’t much else working for the Sixers’ second unit in the first half. Former Sixer and current Knick Alec Burks, who scored 19 points, possibly would’ve been a useful player for Rivers to call upon. On the other end of the floor, Howard and the Sixers were content to let Taj Gibson attempt open three-pointers, and he missed his first two.
That strategy was sound against a 30 percent three-point shooter but it will be interesting to see what the Sixers do without Embiid when they face a legitimate stretch five. In theory, that might be the right time to try more of Simmons at center, although Howard’s energy and production have generally been beyond reproach in recent games. He recorded 11 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against the Knicks.
Howard played 28 minutes Tuesday, while Tony Bradley played 17. Perhaps Rivers didn’t want to dent Bradley’s confidence or overtax his 35-year-old center, but the split could arguably have been even further in Howard’s direction, especially given that Bradley didn’t have a good night. Perhaps having Howard play substantially more than Bradley but continue to start games on the bench might be Rivers’ approach moving forward.
Howard has clearly loved playing in front of fans the last two games at Wells Fargo Center. After his fourth-quarter rejection on Randle, it was hard to believe that only 3,000 or so fans were in the building.
Why does Rivers think Howard has ramped up his level of play after the All-Star level break?
“Probably the drinks he had in Puerto Rico or wherever he went for the break,” Rivers joked. “He was able to relax. … I think it’s just who he is, No. 1. I think the fans help. He loves an audience. But he’s so important to us. I thought he stabilized us in the first half and came in and made some plays. I thought the Knicks were having their way with us in the physicality department, and then we threw in Dwight and all that changed. That’s what he does for your team.”