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December 25, 2022

Instant observations: Sixers stars go off vs. Knicks for Christmas Day victory

The Sixers slept through the start of their Christmas Day matchup with the Knicks and it didn't matter one bit, with Joel Embiid and James Harden dominating the second half of a 119-112 victory. Embiid and Harden combined for 64 points in the win.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• This game featured one of the worst starts for Embiid I can remember, an opening quarter filled with missed shots, missed free throws, missed rebounding opportunities, missed everything. Somebody or something woke the sleeping giant up in the second quarter, though, with Embiid working his way into this game and unleashing an avalanche on the Knicks as the game went on.

Nothing else was going for Embiid, so he went back to the place that has so often pulled him out of the muck — the free-throw line. As Mitchell Robinson battled foul trouble, Embiid was able to cycle through a series of iffy matchups and force the Knicks to cross the line of physicality on the block, marching to the line with ease throughout the back half of the second quarter. With some makes at the stripe and a bit of forward momentum, the game was on, and everything started to bend around what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go.

When the second half began, it was go time. Embiid continued to force the issue, forcing Robinson to make some business decisions instead of taking another foul. It's not often that we've seen Embiid dominate through low-post play this year, but this was an absolute clinic for him in and around the paint. Using his strength, timing, and touch, Embiid essentially neutralized Robinson's length for most of 2.5 quarters, putting him under the rim with no chance to make a play. All of a sudden, you looked at the box score and Embiid had 30, and it felt like he might go for 50 if you simply left him on the floor and let him keep going.

Returning to the game after a James Harden haymaker to open the fourth quarter, Embiid was not the center of the offense the same way he was throughout most of the third. But with a few key buckets, including a tip-in that gave him a chance to gloat in front of the New York crowd, Embiid joined his co-star to help put away their opponent. 

• Harden didn't tie another Sixers record on Sunday, but this was another terrific outing for him on offense in a run filled with those. Quentin Grimes has been an impactful addition to the starting lineup for the Knicks, a young guard who people were excited to watch battle with Harden. The veteran won that matchup pretty decisively, punishing Grimes for reach-ins, hesitation, and moments where he played too far up on No. 1. Before Harden caught fire from three, he had done plenty of work inside the arc, baiting Grimes into bad fouls and piling up points at the line.

This still looked like a game the Sixers could lose, though, when Embiid checked out of the game late in the third quarter. You could certainly argue Harden deserved a breather at the same moment — Harden was already at 31 minutes and counting when the fourth quarter began — but keeping him on the floor gave Harden the stage to finally push Philly in front.

And really, it came down to little more than Harden finding his shooting boots. Harden was already in the midst of a productive day when he hit a pull-up three in the dying moments of the third, and he upped the ante in the first minute of the fourth, canning a logo pull-up that drew a few audible gasps from the Garden crowd.

Moments later, Harden came up with a steal thanks to a good off-ball read, and with the Knicks scrambling to stop the hot star in early offense, Georges Niang ended up with an easy look at a three, giving the Sixers their first lead of the entire game, 37+ minutes into the game.

The highs and lows on the other end were dramatic, with Harden getting smoked on a few back cuts and drives from smaller guards and wings. But he played some competent, damn-near-good defense when he slid further up the lineup on switches, including some excellent possessions on Knicks forward Julius Randle. Randle had been cooking Philadelphia against an ostensibly better defender in Tucker, and Harden's hands proved to be a big asset vs. the bigger player, disrupting Randle as he tried to go by Harden. That was as important to the win as the offensive explosion, and a much bigger surprise than Harden finding the range.

The Sixers opted to play zone for a lot of their non-Embiid minutes in this one, and that ended up being a good fit for Harden, limiting the reads he had to make and forcing a struggling Knicks bench to try to shoot them out of it. Now for the love of god, get the man some rest, because he had to play far too much to get this one over the line.

• Once again, it is impossible to discuss a nice Sixers win without mentioning the second-half efforts of Georges Niang. He has proven to be an incredibly important piece to have out there with Harden, especially when Harden is rolling, as the Sixers are only one quick pass away from an open three for one of their best shooters in the trail position.

He is the king of the momentum three for this group, riding the crowd energy at home games and living to silence the road crowd when they're away from Wells Fargo Center. I absolutely love watching him talk cash shit to anyone and everyone within shouting distance, and he's in the midst of a terrific season.

• It has become far too common for players to eschew end-of-quarter shots to protect their field goal percentages. Shake Milton got one of the craziest halfcourt shots up of the season right before halftime, and I'm glad he was rewarded for simply trying to help his team out:

That sent the Sixers into the tunnel with some positive vibes, and more importantly, three more points than they would have had otherwise. Let it fly, fellas. 

• The Sixers had no real business being in this game at halftime, given the poor start from Embiid and their dire problems on the glass, but they only ended up in a three-point hole when all was said and done. How exactly did they get there?

It certainly helped that De'Anthony Melton was on a heater in the first half. He has run either scorching hot or ice cold on a lot of nights recently, and the Sixers should be counting their lucky stars that he had the touch for a Christmas matinee. It's one thing for Melton to knock down open catch-and-shoot looks, which he has done well enough recently, and another for him to hit some bail-out shots off the dribble, which he did a time or two on Sunday. Shooting expert JJ Redick noted the groove Melton was in right before he got an ultra-friendly bounce from the rim. 

Halftime did nothing to slow down Melton, who only needed a couple of minutes of action before pulling up for a tightly-contested three early in the shot clock. Foul trouble would ultimately derail his day, relegating him to bench duty for far too long in this one, but the shooting was absolutely necessary to keep this one close.

The Bad

• If you were hoping for the Sixers to continue their run of good form and shrug off the morning's report about Harden potentially returning to Houston, it certainly took a while for them to do so. The Knicks punched them in the mouth in the first quarter and forced the Sixers to regroup, which they were mercifully able to do.

Have to look at the best player on the team first, unfortunately. Embiid came out for this game with the enthusiasm of a man who had received nothing but socks for Christmas. It didn't help that Mitchell Robinson made his life hell on both ends — even as Embiid moved him for inside position and created a bit of separation with pump fakes and jab steps, Robinson's length bothered the big man, who got off to a 3-for-9 start from the field.

The other end was much, much worse. New York absolutely killed the Sixers with second-chance points, rebounding 38.5 percent of their misses in the first half. You couldn't blame Embiid for all of those, as the Knicks drew him out for a bunch of contests and then picked up second chances on the weakside when he wasn't there to help. But when Embiid had opportunities to do something about it, he was just as bad as the rest of them, standing around with his arms at his side while New York pounded them for buckets on second (and sometimes third) opportunities.

Collectively, there was just no fight there to start this game, and even if you have to give them credit for willing themselves back into the game, they shouldn't have to keep climbing out of holes against decent teams.

• Overall, this was just a horrific showing on defense for about three quarters, much of which you could chalk up to basic effort and attentiveness. The Sixers have done well to avoid those lulls and have bought in as a group lately, but they were not there mentally at times. Chalk it up to the Christmas effect or playing a game at 12 noon — those matinee games will mess with your body for sure — but there were far too many half-speed possessions and route-one buckets for New York. 

Not all their issues were mental, though. We got hit with a double whammy for P.J. Tucker in this game. First, ESPN's Cassidy Hubbarth interviewed Tucker on the broadcast, bringing up a pinched nerve that he is apparently calling a "dead hand" and impacting his play. Tucker shrugged it off and said something to the effect of this being part of the NBA, but that seems pretty bad.

More importantly, a "dead hand" does not impact your ability to defend and move in space, and Tucker was about as bad as it gets for the Sixers there on Sunday. Julius Randle absolutely abused him throughout the first half of their Christmas Day matchup, scoring 25 points on a combination of outside shooting and blow-bys, leaving Tucker as useful as a department store mannequin.

There has often been a middle ground to find with Tucker, who has been more useful than his low-volume, low-output games on offense suggest. But there was just about nothing to like in this game for Tucker, who looked old and slow throughout. 

Elsewhere in the "defensive issues" department, Melton has been an awesome defender and complementary piece all season, but Jalen Brunson absolutely destroyed him at the start of this game. I think that's more a reflection of who Brunson is and a bad matchup than anything else, with Brunson proving a little too strong for Melton at times. Brunson would probe, Melton would hang around, and then Brunson would lean into him enough to throw off his center of gravity, buying all the separation he needed.

The Ugly

• Danuel House Jr. took maybe the dumbest foul I have ever seen in a basketball game late in the first quarter of this game. Crowding Jalen Brunson on an inbounds pass, House basically ran into New York's lead guard 80 feet from the basket. What made it worse/more hilarious was House and Rivers arguing the call and advocating for a travel call on Brunson, who didn't even have a chance to move before House plowed into him.

Moments like these are why I understand the fanbase's frustration with House throughout this season. He's only ever a moment away from doing something that makes you throw your hands up in disgust and confusion.

• Paul Reed has not been very good this year (seriously, look at the numbers with him on the floor) but you certainly can't argue that Montrezl Harrell looks the part of a useful backup player either. Harrell getting thrown right back into the mix after stinking it up against the Clippers was definitely a choice. You also sort of lose the justification for playing him when he smokes open layups in pick-and-rolls, which is supposed to be the minimum you can ask him to do.

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