Well, if you had spaced on the NBA until you decided to tune into Sixers-Knicks this Christmas, you might have a very different idea of 2017 basketball than the generally accepted narrative.
The two teams combined to shoot 14 of 44 from three-point land — the Knicks didn't even make a triple until the second half — and the game was instead won and lost down low and on the glass, with Sixers franchise everything Joel Embiid (yes, he played, thank all religious deities) battling with Knicks bigs Enes Kanter and Kristaps Porzingis (in that order, surprisingly) for 34 extremely hard-fought minutes. The Sixers escaped with the 105-98 win — barely, but it counts — in their first Christmas game since 2001, largely thanks to the beyond-Herculean efforts of Embiid and huge work around the margins by Best Supporting Processor T.J. McConnell.
Gotta start with Joel, of course. Without our JoJo, entirely possible this thing was over by halftime -- the Sixers' offense was miserable to start, nobody else could do anything about Kanter (31 and 22!!) underneath, and the Knicks' guards essentially paraded to the rim. But some big post buckets, a major effort on the boards and a handful of absolutely sacrilegious rim denials from The Process kept The Sixers in this one, despite terrible shooting halves from Dario Saric and Robert Covington and a largely neutralized Ben Simmons.
Embiid also paraded to the line in the third quarter, and though he seemed to run out of gas in the fourth — racking up half of his six turnovers and losing his indomitability down low — he also hit an absolutely enormous shot-clock-beating triple in the final minutes to essentially put the game out of New York's reach. His 34 minutes were definitely pushing it, and may have consequences for Embiid and the Sixers beyond this one, but no chance were they winning with Joel capped at 28. We'll find out soon enough whether it ends up being worth it, but in the meantime, you can't say enough about Jo's MVP-caliber performance this afternoon: 25 and 16 with three blocks and a matches-the-eye-test +25 for the day. Not even a typical Sixers late-game turnover-and-foul apocalypse could undo it.
As good as Embiid was, it was pretty troubling how little support he got elsewhere. Simmons had some huge plays in transition, particularly a late steal that led to a breakaway dunk that further clinched the game for the Sixers, but he was bottled up in the halfcourt, unable to find the seams in the Knicks' defense, finishing with just eight points on eight shots. Not helping was that our floor-stretching forwards were thoroughly ineffectual, with Saric and Covington combining to shoot 1 for 10 on mostly open three-point looks, and Cov sitting for most of the fourth quarter. Of our nominal shooters, only JJ Redick — back from injury after missing both Toronto games — found his groove in this one, scoring a tremendous 24 points on just 10 shots, albeit with his usual couple of head-smacking unforced TOs down the stretch.
JoJo's most reliable wingman in this one was undoubtedly T.J. McConnell. Teej was typically maniacal in this one, pestering guards full-court, diving full-tilt towards the hoop and figuring out his gameplan seemingly on the fly, coming up with massive steals and even bigger buckets (2 of 4 from deep on open looks, which on this afternoon basically made him Steph Curry). Even the turnovers he didn't directly cause he seemed to influence with his chaos-inducing D, and it was telling that after refraining from playing him in the final minutes in most close Sixers games of late, Brett Brown finally stuck with T.J. for the long haul today. Here's hoping we don't see Jerryd Bayless over him during winning time anytime soon.
It'd probably be misleading to call this an entirely feel-good win for the Sixers. Some of Brown's lineups remain perplexing, and why Richaun Holmes appears to be out of the rotation when he's shown far more effectiveness alongside Joel than Trevor Booker is a question not easily answered. Simmons seems increasingly compromised by defenses that don't allow him rim runs, and he'll have to continue to develop other facets of his offensive game to avoid racking up more games scoring in simple digits. And 34 minutes is just too many minutes for a game-time-decision Embiid — probably even when the game hangs in the balance.
Nonetheless, it was a win. For the Sixers. On national TV. On Christmas. Considering how rough a December this has been for the Liberty Ballers, and how down most of us have gotten as a result, it's a necessary reality check to take stock of this moment and acknowledge that on the whole, things with this team are still generally fun and exciting and beautiful. You could tell from how pronounced the Process presence was at MSG today: Nearly home-team-loud cheers for Sixers highlights, sporadic "E-A-G-L-E-S" chants, and of course, enough "TRUST-THE-PRO-CESS!" that the Knicks fans needed to get booing to drown out.
The team's got their work cut out for them at 15-18 to get back into the playoff hunt at this point, for sure. But if Embiid's back behaves and an effective Markelle Fultz (who teased a Christmas surprise that has still yet to materialize) re-enters the mix soon, the team should still be a factor in the East in the months to come -- and games like today's, where they secure the W playing far from their best 48, are evidence why. It's not a feel-good win, but you're still encouraged to feel good about the Sixers this Christmas.