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November 08, 2021

Instant observations: Shorthanded Sixers rally but fall to Knicks late

Sixers NBA

The Sixers scratched and clawed all the way down to the final seconds on Monday night, but the Knicks emerged victorious, 103-96, in the front end of a back-to-back for Philadelphia.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• I think we are officially at the point that Furkan Korkmaz's play has to be considered a legitimate step forward rather than a strong start that will eventually fade over time. Korkmaz basically carried Philly's offense as they struggled through a brutal first half, and he did much more than just hit threes against New York, impacting the game on both sides of the ball.

When Korkmaz used to drive to the basket, it was basically a guaranteed fast break for opponents, with his floaters and runners careening off of the glass and not going in nearly as often as his touch suggests they should. He has finally figured out a way to finish around the basket with regularity, which is a big deal for him — Korkmaz looks a lot more comfortable playing through contact, and his loping strides allow him to find balance and put up shots while still in control of his body, rather than just flinging stuff up at the rim.

And while Korkmaz still has defensive warts, he's much improved on that end of the floor, as you saw when he ripped RJ Barrett on a first-half possession and went the length of the floor for a dunk afterward.

Shooting is the main thing, but it's more powerful because it's not the only thing. 

• Expectations were low for Danny Green coming into this game. A veteran getting reintroduced to an undermanned rotation after a layoff due to hamstring tightness? Sounds like a recipe for disaster. Somebody forgot to tell Green that, because he was an absolute menace against Julius Randle on the defensive end, battling valiantly in the post to force Randle into a lot of tough shot attempts despite the physical advantage Randle looked to have there.

Standing up to Randle in the post was just one of the many ways Green made his return felt on Monday night. There were deflections on entry passes, expert rotations, and what seemed like an endless parade of transition blocks and steals against the Knicks. He looked absolutely no worse for wear coming off of the soft tissue issue, flying through the air and sprinting back in transition as if he'd gotten a leg transplant over the last week.

Yeah, he needed to make more shots. But he was light years ahead of where I expected, and he made a couple of big ones to pull them closer in the second half.

• Based on how this game unfolded, Paul Reed probably deserved to play more minutes on Monday night. After bringing serious energy to the starting lineup against Chicago the previous game, Reed helped liven up the Sixers against the Knicks, briefly pulling them out of a slump before the rest of the team went on a missed shot spree.

But you can't fault Reed for that. His handprints were all over the game as soon as he stepped on the floor, with Reed running the floor and diving for loose balls and still managing to play composed basketball. The offensive highlight of his first stint started with nothing but effort, and then Reed turned it into something more by letting the play develop around him instead of forcing up a tough shot at the basket:

This is the big difference between Reed this year and Reed last year — that same possession would have turned into a slapstick comedy routine after the offensive rebound last season, and Reed's ability to get early rotation minutes this season has already paid dividends. With the tools he has and the spirit Reed plays with, there is a regular rotation player there just waiting to grow.

• Andre Drummond has had some serious issues finishing recently, and he was one of many culprits in Philadelphia's slow start to this game. But give the man credit for staying locked in mentally after the slow start, because his physicality helped get the Sixers rolling in the second half.

The Knicks lost former Sixers center Nerlens Noel to a knee injury shortly before halftime, and with the Knicks already down Mitchell Robinson, the best New York had to offer at the pivot was Taj Gibson, who is giving up a lot of size and athleticism to Drummond at this stage of his career. And Drummond made that count, bullying the Knicks on the offensive glass early in the quarter to extend possessions and get the Sixers into the bonus just 3:30 into the third. And for a man always looking for a slick pass to make, Drummond found one during Philly's early second-half run, hitting Danny Green for a corner three on a play that sent the home crowd into hysterics.

On the other end, Drummond raised his level defensively, coming up with a quick pair of blocked shots near the basket early in the third quarter, buying the Sixers some badly-needed stops and rim protection with the group short on, well, almost all of their good perimeter defenders. 

There were moments where Drummond wasn't necessarily the guy making the final impact play, but the guy drawing the attention so that play could be made. Drummond ran the floor like a maniac to keep a transition miss from Philly alive late in the third, and when Tyrese Maxey eventually came up with the ball, Seth Curry was in a position to bang one home from the corner. Play hard and good things happen.

• Speaking of young Maxey, this was not an effective night of basketball on offense. His willingness to let it fly from deep was encouraging to see, as was his ability to make a couple of those shots, but it was a struggle to score inside the arc for young Maxey.

So what did he do to make up for it? He got busy on the glass. Doc Rivers has noted multiple times recently that they need their guards to contribute more in the rebounding battle with the issues they've had closing out possessions, and there is no doubting Maxey's "want to" in that area. He was the smallest guy on the floor for long stretches of this game, but he popped up in traffic for a handful of rebounds anyway, trying to overcome the bad shooting night one way or another.

• Say what you will about Doc Rivers, but he has this group playing hard as hell every night. 

The Bad

• There are only so many guys who can be removed from the lineup before your ability to generate offense goes to hell. The Sixers who are still healthy enough to get on the floor are putting in valiant efforts, but there are not many high-level creators in this bunch, and it effectively forces the Sixers to live by the three and/or die by the three. That was okay in the case of Korkmaz, not so much for everybody else.

The big stinker on Monday night was Georges Niang, whose big shot in the final minutes of their win over Chicago masked another clunker in the previous game. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the shot quality he was getting against the Knicks, with Niang just missing makable look after makable look from the perimeter.

Eventually, Niang's inability from deep prompted him to do something other than stand there and launch away, and that's when it got even uglier. There were several runner attempts inside the arc that never really got close to dropping, and with Rivers commenting before the game that Niang was fatigued toward the end of Saturday's game, you have to wonder if he's simply a little overextended right now. Niang eventually got some tough ones to drop in the second half, but it wasn't enough to make up for the rough start.

He wasn't the only guy to struggle from beyond the arc against New York, and Seth Curry was probably the most surprising of the bunch. Curry's ability to hit step-in twos and do damage inside the arc shone through once again, but he missed some open threes that he probably makes 3/4 of the time on a normal night. And Curry's ability to impact this game cratered after an initial hot start, with the Knicks making it hard for him to get to the ball in the first place by jamming him up on cuts and movement.

• This was just a brutal game for Shake Milton, who forced up a lot of junk leading the second unit and did not show the shotmaking chops to justify it. The Sixers have benefitted from the Shake experience in recent games as he overcame his own questionable decisions by simply getting shots to drop, but his touch was in short supply in this one. And unlike some other games recently, he didn't do a whole lot to make up for it on the defensive end.

• Commendable as his effort was, some of Maxey's limitations as a primary initiator came through in this game. Some teams are still capable of making him look really small around the basket, with Maxey relying on a small package of finishing moves to score around and through length at the rim. 

When he can outright beat guys with speed and avoid the contest altogether, he looks quite alright, but he ended up having to put up a lot of tough shots ad odd angles on Monday, and the bounces didn't go his way.

• Not sure why Niang, shooting as poorly as he did, got the opportunity to play small-ball five in a big spot in the second half. He found a way to make an impact as a driver, but the Knicks were looking to get him involved in a switch constantly out of that look, which is not a position the Sixers want to find themselves in. Niang is a good team and help defender, but putting him in a position where he has to routinely defend other guys in space is going to go poorly.

All that said, I don't think you can get especially worked up about this game, with this group battling hard all night in a really tough situation.

The Ugly

• Going to what was effectively a seven-man rotation for the second half of this game seems like borderline insanity to me unless the Sixers are planning on just throwing the game against Milwaukee on Tuesday night. I honestly don't think conceding the loss to the Bucks tomorrow is a dumb or crazy idea, but it is far too early in the season to just be pushing these guys past the limit in an attempt to win an early November game against the Knicks. 

I'm not saying you needed to throw Jaden Springer in there for 25 minutes, but this undermanned crew is not done after tonight. There needs to be an eye on the bigger picture even as you try to win games in the short term.

• This officiating crew was just straight-up bad. There were several noteworthy calls that looked obviously and hilariously bad in real-time that only got worse on replay. One that stood out — an out-of-bounds ruling at the end of the first quarter that initially went to the Sixers, only for the closest official to overrule the initial correct decision.

• I would love a Sixers-Knicks playoff series for the fan matchup alone. Both fanbases went absolutely ballistic every time their team was on a run Monday night. These franchises have so rarely been good at the same time, and it would be a nice change of pace if we got some fun battles with a longtime divisional foe in the years to come.

They are just as depraved (in a good way) as Sixers fans — there was a guy yelling "FREE KEVIN KNOX" down the stretch in the fourth. Give me more of that insanity.

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