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February 05, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers blow huge early lead in loss to Knicks

The Sixers had the look of a title favorite early in their matchup with the Knicks on Sunday, before they managed to squander a 20-point lead and barf all over themselves in a 108-97 loss. Every single player on Philadelphia's bench was at least a -14.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• With the Knicks on the second half of a back-to-back, this was a prime opportunity for Philadelphia to come in and punch a weary opponent in the mouth to open the game. And that's exactly what the Sixers did, using a terrific team effort to jump out to an early 20-point lead.

As usual, Joel Embiid was the guy leading the way for Philadelphia in the scoring department, though he had plenty of help from the guys around him. P.J. Tucker was Philadelphia's most unlikely hero in the early moments of this game, sliding over from the dunker spot for a layup before canning a corner three, scoring the Sixers' first five points of the game. Fist pumps happened across the Philadelphia area — P.J. is back, baby.

But seriously, Tucker looked awesome to begin this game. He had a few awesome possessions in space against smaller/quicker players, with Tucker corralling Immanuel Quickley on one noteworthy possession that (unfortunately) ended with a bail-out runner by Julius Randle in traffic. The start of this game featured some of Philadelphia's best, most cohesive defense in a while, with Tucker one of the key cogs in that.

Thanks to their ability to get stops, the Sixers were able to get out and run, and that's where you saw the value of their stars shining through. Embiid leaves opponents drawing dead when he beats his man down the floor, and poor Jericho Sims barely had a chance to get back before Embiid was sealing him off, putting a shoulder in his chest, and going up for two points near the rim. Harden was there to find him every time, making sure the big man got to go to work immediately.

Really, you could argue Harden was the star of the show to open this game, and he didn't have a single point in the opening period. It was a dazzling passing display from No. 1, with Harden throwing beautiful lead passes in transition while manipulating the floor in the halfcourt. Rather than overdribbling or trying to do everything themselves, the Sixers moved the ball and ran, creating gorgeous team highlights like this one:

They have not always been a well-oiled machine in transition, but this shows what they can be at their best.

• It may have been a showcase of team basketball early on, but the deeper we got into the first half, the more this became about Embiid simply propping the Sixers up. The fast-breaking, ball-sharing Sixers were undone by an absolutely miserable bench effort between the first and second quarters, so it was up to the starters to come back in and save the win against a Knicks group that found some life.

When all else fails, the Sixers can take comfort in the knowledge that a free-throw line jumper for Embiid is as close to automatic as it gets in the NBA. They went to that well plenty in the second quarter, and when he wasn't splashing jumpers over smaller defenders, Embiid made sharp reads out of doubles or picked up fouls on gambling Knicks defenders. 

It was a mixed bag in terms of effort and activity. Embiid did run the floor and expend tons of energy on offense, and I tend to think Philadelphia is at its best when Embiid is emptying the tank to get down the floor early and get set up. But I wasn't in love with Embiid's rebounding effort in this game, even with the numbers looking good on paper. He allowed Jericho Sims to beat him to a few loose balls that probably should have gone to Philadelphia's bigger, stronger man around the paint, and when Embiid was actually willing to jump and high point the ball, you could see how futile Sims' efforts were. Hold this thought for a second.

This might not have been an A+ game for Embiid, who had a few ugly turnovers in the second half, but they should have walked to a victory regardless, and they were far better with him on the floor than off of it.

• If the Eagles didn't have their quarterback spot locked down for the foreseeable future, you'd wonder if they should give a look to the guy playing point guard for the basketball team at the same sports complex. Harden's deep-ball passing was outrageous in the game, as seen below:

Harden had a handful of these passes throughout the evening, turning stops into immediate clean looks for his teammates.

• Not a misprint — this was Tucker's first double-digit outing since Halloween. Crazy to think he came out of the gate looking strong when you considered how poor he has looked for most of this season.

The Bad

• Joel Embiid checked out of the game with the score at 35-15 late in the first quarter. The New York Knicks went on a 9-0 run to end the period, bringing the score to 35-24. It took until the Knicks had gone on a 15-0 run before Doc Rivers decided to sub Montrezl Harrell out of the game for Paul Reed.

I have been more forgiving than most when it comes to Harrell's inclusion in the rotation, because he has had some decent stretches this year and has built-in chemistry with Harden. But those good days are a long way away at this point, and Embiid subbing out of games has meant disaster for Philadelphia in recent weeks. If the Sixers simply didn't have another option, it would be one thing, but Paul Reed is sitting right there, waiting to get an opportunity to play and/or develop.

It's probably not fair to pin everything on just Harrell. Philadelphia's bench features poor defenders at the point of attack, which is a bad match for Harrell's style of play, and not the sort of players you'd have him next to in an ideal world. On the other side of the ball, Maxey's individual scoring can lift up any unit when he has it rolling, but Sunday night's game featured little penetration from Maxey and a whole lot of wasted time on the shot clock.

There's simply no reason to put an all-bench lineup on the floor even if you view Maxey as a starting-caliber player leading those guys. Tobias Harris tends to come in as the "savior" for this groups once they get into trouble (or if they get into trouble), and you might as well bring him in earlier to avoid things getting really thorny.

But even if we absolve Harrell for things out of his control, Reed is clearly better suited to play rim protector behind the paper mache guards, and Harrell is clearly in a bad place over the last few weeks. A change to the rotation is overdue, though it's not clear if we're going to get one. Bringing Reed in to put out a fire after a lineup with Harrell gives up a 15-0 run is not exactly putting Reed in a position to succeed, either, and it has to be frustrating for the younger player that he's only getting mop-up duty with Harrell/lineups with Harrell stinking it up.

• Paul Reed getting the second-half minutes at center and immediately giving up a putback layup is why I want to caution against blaming Harrell for everything. You can see why the Sixers are after another option at backup center heading into the deadline.

• Just to drive this point home, a major reason you want multiple stars on the roster is to spread their minutes across the full game, giving your team as much coverage as you can without overtaxing anybody. Rivers' choice since he arrived in Philadelphia, at least for the most part, has been to load up on simultaneous star minutes and hope that all-bench lineups can carry them for short stretches. It looks great when it works, and the plan shifts slightly in the second halves of games, but it looks completely ridiculous when a game flips as it did on Sunday.

I'm not asking for Embiid or Harden to be on the floor every minute of the game because I'm realistic about how they'll stagger these guys. But the least Rivers can do is give Maxey some help when they turn the game over to the bench. Use Harris, use Melton, do whatever you need to do, just don't expect bench-only groups to consistently beat or draw even with good teams.

• Philadelphia's rebounding was downright pathetic down the stretch of this game, and you can point the finger directly at Joel Embiid on a lot of those plays. On one Knicks possession, New York came down with three different offensive rebounds, Embiid hardly moving as smaller players zipped over and around him. At the end of it all, Evan Fournier had a wide-open three, and the Knicks kept the Sixers an arm's length away.

90 seconds or so later, Embiid and Harris watched as Isaiah Hartenstein came flying through their airspace and dug out a rebound on a missed free throw. Deuce McBride canned a three in the corner to push the lead to eight points, and that was all she wrote.

This team has shown plenty of character up to this point in the year, but moments like these give you pause when thinking about how they'll respond in tough times during the playoffs. They needed to fight for this one, and they packed it in instead.

(Getting outworked in crunch time by a team on the second half of a back-to-back, and a team that played overtime in the first game of the back-to-back at that, is pretty miserable.)

• I'm going to say this as gently as I can — it's a little hard to crush the "all-bench lineup" as a horrible idea while also believing wholeheartedly that Maxey is their third-best player. I think in the past, you had reason to be straight-up mad about going to a lineup with no starters. If Maxey is in the group, though, their struggles reflect some of his limitations as a player. Not like they lack for shooting with Niang and Shake on the floor out there with him.

Maxey not being able to lift the other guys up makes the concept of an all-bench lineup pretty pointless unless he's on fire. He gets on fire often, but perhaps not enough. 

• The Sixers needed Harden to take over as a scorer at some point in the second half, but that moment never came. So it goes.

• Tobias Harris make a layup challenge (impossible). 

The Ugly

• "Great start," Kate Scott says about P.J. Tucker scoring a basket in the first two minutes of the game, as we all nod our heads and frown about that being the truth.

• Eagles chants at MSG? Love to hear that.

• Georges Niang should just burn the tape from this game. Good grief, he was horrendous. Probably the worst game he has played in a Sixers uniform, with missed shots and horrible defense, and a backbreaking turnover in the fourth quarter combined into one big disasterclass. 

• Bench and coaching loss. That could be the entire recap. Maybe that's why I saved it for the final line, to make sure you read the rest. 

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