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March 16, 2021

Instant observations: Tobias Harris leads Sixers to tight win over Knicks

The Sixers scratched and clawed their way back to a 99-96 victory over the Knicks, powered by a game-high 30 points from Tobias Harris.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• One guy basically kept Philadelphia's offense going during a first half that featured ugly shooting and a decent number of turnovers: Tobias Harris. Harris was their lone floor spacing option for basically the entire first half, and in conjunction with some aggressive moves to the basket, he provided enough to help the Sixers hang around in spite of downright terrible execution on the offensive end.

There appeared to be a bit of personal juice to this game for Harris, who was in competition with Julius Randle for the All-Star Game and seemed to keep that fact in his mind when the two were matched up. Defensively, Harris got low in his stance and forced Randle to work hard in the post area where he has made his money historically, and he was quick to go right back at him on the other end, beating his counterpart with some nice off-the-dribble moves on top of the outside shooting. 

After scoring a clutch bucket in the post with time winding down in the fourth, Harris let loose as the Sixers walked over to the bench for a timeout, seemingly declaring that he was the guy who deserved that bid for the midseason game. Hard to say he was wrong for that one — he came up with at least a few monster defensive plays on top of the crunch-time dominance on offense. And the strategy wasn't exactly disguised, with the Sixers letting Harris target the smallest/weakest defender on the floor late, reminiscent of his recent overtime performance against the Jazz.

Harris is a scoring chameleon, a guy who is somehow constantly adapting to the situation at hand, never out of place whether he has to carry the team or Joel Embiid is the center of the universe. That's a credit to not just his skill set, but his mental approach, and it's tough to do the job he does on offense night-to-night this season. 

He was the man for Philly on Tuesday night, and they needed him to use every tool in the kit to get this one over the line. Now he needs to do it against the Bucks tomorrow night.

• The Dwight Howard renaissance continues. He was miles better than starter Tony Bradley on Tuesday (not that it's saying much), and if he had better setup play from his running mates on the second unit, he looked in the mood to have a much bigger night against New York. As it was, he offered more than enough for a guy in his role.

Howard's uptick in play recently really just makes me wonder what he would look like playing with a guard that has real juice as a pick-and-roll player. Even a fully-realized version of Tyrese Maxey would be something — Maxey loved throwing lobs during his days at Kentucky, and those two showed some early chemistry in the pick-and-roll to start the year. Shake Milton has been pretty hit-or-miss as the lead handler off of the bench, and Howard feels like a guy in need of some ballhandling dynamism alongside him.

• Ben Simmons has been in actual foul trouble several times this season, but this game felt like one of the rougher whistles he has gotten all year even though he was never really in danger. The Knicks earned a couple of cheap ones on really rough calls against Simmons, and they got away with a fair amount of rough stuff on him on the other end.

I thought he navigated the game expertly anyway, picking up different responsibilities as the game situation warranted it. The Sixers needed him to be an on-ball driver, a roll man out of pick-and-rolls, the space creator in dribble handoffs, and the guy leading the break in transition, and save for some early turnovers, he managed to do all of that at a reasonably high level.

(Philly probably won't have a better opportunity all year than the next two weeks to try out a variety of different looks with Simmons as the screener. It's already a pretty big part of the playbook, but with small ball something they might need down the road in the playoffs, it behooves them to try out whatever Rivers might be sitting on until Embiid comes back.)

There were more defensive possessions where he got toasted than the average night — he had most of his issues near the basket/in the post, with guys burning him on shoulder fakes — but he did a pretty good job slowing down R.J. Barrett. 

• Credit to Furkan Korkmaz and Seth Curry for battling back into this game after some absolutely putrid first halves, with Curry putting on a shooting display after halftime after an anonymous first half we will get to below. 

The aforementioned variety in Simmons' game was to Curry's benefit more than anyone else. Philadelphia got him going with a few dribble handoff plays early in the third quarter, and a guy who spent most of the first 24 minutes afraid to shoot was suddenly taking heat check threes from the coach's box, helping to shoot Philadelphia back into the game.

Korkmaz had the quieter half, but he was most of the bench's offense during an early fourth-quarter spurt that allowed the Sixers to hang around, and he bought the starters a chance to close the deal in the final minutes.

The Bad

 • Doc Rivers' decision to give Philadelphia's small-ball lineup a chance in the first half was sane enough on the surface. Tony Bradley wasn't giving them basically anything, and the Knicks don't have bigs who are going to really punish you for downsizing a bit.

For the life of me, I just can't figure out why the Sixers are playing that lineup with Simmons as the nominal center and never attempting to switch on defense. Simmons has shown you time and time again (this year and in years past) that rim protector is not a role he's suited for. In brief run with that lineup on Tuesday, you saw it again —the Knicks had an easy time getting to the rim with Simmons not playing the sort of swooping defense we're accustomed to Joel Embiid.

If the Sixers want to try this, and the coaching staff has indicated that's the case, they might as well look at changing up the defensive style to match it. Lean into what Simmons does well on defense and see if that does the trick.

• You had to know it was coming sooner or later, but Philadelphia's bench crashing back to Earth basically all at once was pretty inconvenient to their plans on Tuesday. 

I think Shake Milton had a case as the worst of the bunch, piling a bad defensive game (one of his worst of the season) on top of a lifeless effort on offense. When he's in this sort of form, I don't know how you can ask the all-bench group to hold up. With due respect to Randle, who deserves credit for the progress he's made as an all-around player, your lead bench guard should be licking their chops if they see him in front of them in an isolation situation. Milton stared it down more than once and barely even attempted to go at him. Tough look.

(Inexplicably, they once again played good minutes to open the fourth as they did against Utah in the team's big pre-break win. I stand by the assessment anyway!)

• Transition defense has been a point of emphasis on the practice court and in Philadelphia's pre-game messaging, and while there were some good individual effort plays against the Knicks, the Sixers continue to be a work in progress in that department. New York may have been the team on the second half of a back-to-back, but they beat the Sixers down the floor routinely on Tuesday night, something I'm sure the staff will light into them for at the next film session.

• Danny Green and Curry were both bad in their own unique ways for the first half of Tuesday's game, but I think one is a more impactful version of bad than the other. Any guesses on whose style of offensive ineptitude I dislike(d) more?

If you guessed Curry (and you probably didn't), you would be correct. I will always, always, always live with one of the guys you are paying and trusting to make shots simply missing decent looks from deep. When Green misses a bunch of open or lightly-contested jumpers, it's aggravating to watch and must be a bit annoying for teammates who create the open looks, but you know he isn't going to blink when the ball swings his way whether he's 9/10 or 1/10.

Curry simply can't be as tentative to shoot as he has been for long stretches of this season, and as he was against the Knicks for the first half of Tuesday's game. Teams loading up in the paint and challenging the Sixers' shooters to beat them has been the gameplan in big games for basically all of the Embiid/Simmons era, and he is one of the guys who has to release the pressure in the playoffs and capitalize on the attention paid to his running mates.

.Once Curry started letting them fly in the second half, the Sixers' offense suddenly looked quite a bit better. You can't make shots if you can't take them. Crazy concept, I know. 

• That above section is how I genuinely feel, but there's still no way to dress up Danny Green's offensive performance. That was a stinker.

The Ugly

• Can I nominate most of the first quarter for this section? Heck, I write the articles, I can nominate anything I want if I feel like it.

Both defenses deserve their share of credit for the rough start, with individual players putting in good shifts on both teams. But the Knicks style of defense (pack the paint, give up nothing easy) combined with a bad Green game led to an absolutely brutal, borderline unwatchable game. The Sixers constantly had to recycle possessions, and their only genuinely willing shooter was ice cold from deep, bricking shot after shot when possessions swung his way. When that happens, it's going to be a long night.

It did not get any better with the bench group. They lack dribble penetration on their best nights, and it was even uglier against the Knicks, with a lot of possessions forcing Howard to isolate and create for himself. Yes, that Dwight Howard, the 35-year-old backup center who should basically never have to create for himself.

I thought this brand of basketball died a long time ago. Please, no more.

• As most of you know, I enjoy the musical element of modern-day basketball. There is still absolutely no reason to play two different songs back to back when Dwight Howard scores. If Howard wants to hear "All Gold Everything" by Trinidad James when he scores, fine. Trying to blend that with Superman theme music is just ridiculous.

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