Since starting this season 12-12, the Sixers have won 22 times and lost only six.
Zero of those defeats have been games in which the team’s reasonable, consensus reaction was essentially, “We played fine and missed some good looks. They played a little better. It happens.”
On Dec. 27, head coach Doc Rivers was “disappointed” in the Sixers' approach and thought the Wizards played “so much harder.” The Sixers allowed both CJ McCollum and Zach LaVine to make 11 three-pointers. They conceded 37 points to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and played a terrible third quarter in a home loss to the Thunder.
And on Sunday night in New York, the Sixers blew a 21-point lead for the second time in a week. While Rivers pushed back against the notion that the defeat fell entirely on the Sixers’ bench, he had a straightforward evaluation of his second unit’s performance.
“Well, I didn’t think they played any defense, and they didn’t pass to each other,” he said.
After a tremendous Sixers start enhanced a tad by the Knicks opening 0 for 8 from three-point range, the bench indeed had a bad night. That led to severe plus-minus disparities like a plus-18 for Joel Embiid in his 36 minutes and a minus-26 for Shake Milton in his 10.
Rivers thought the game highlighted broader issues for the Sixers and didn’t want to scapegoat the bench.
“I was just really disappointed,” he said. “I thought, very similarly to the Orlando game — and it happens — (the bench) was watching the first group score every time. We were getting layups, wide-open shots, and I think they came in and thought that’s the way they were going to play. You can tell when your group comes in and thinks offense, and I thought that’s what we did tonight.
“You lose the game when that happens. They know that. I just told them, ‘Emotionally and mentally, that’s our next step as a team.’ And I hate that the numbers make it look like it was (only) the bench. It was everybody. This wasn’t just a bench loss, this was a team loss. And I made that clear to them. ... I thought it was more mental and emotional than just playing basketball.”
Rivers defended his decision to stick with an all-bench lineup to begin the fourth quarter.
“Because we’ve been good at that,” he said. “Just because one half doesn’t work, you don’t vacate the unit. That’s what guys do who lose a lot. (The bench) didn’t play well tonight. Honestly, I don’t think that’s why we lost the game. The game is not just explained by plus-minus sometimes; it’s more than that. Our starters came in and we still had the lead. I thought we were just not emotionally strong tonight. I thought they were the mentally tougher team and they deserved to win.”
Though plus-minus numbers and lineup data obviously don’t capture the full picture, the Sixers do have a plus-7.7 rating outside of garbage time in 191 possessions with Tyrese Maxey, Milton, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Montrezl Harrell on the court together, per Cleaning the Glass. Paul Reed took Harrell’s place in that lineup Sunday after the 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year played just 3 minutes and 17 minutes in the first half.
The sporadically used Evan Fournier made five three-pointers off of New York’s bench and Miles McBride sunk three. No second-unit Sixer hit any threes, which contributed to the team being unable to view its lapses in a winning light.
“It starts with all of us,” Embiid said. “First of all, we can’t put ourselves in those positions, give up those type of leads. We’ve got to do the best job possible. But as a team, just got to keep following the game plan and keep playing hard. And I thought tonight, especially when they came back, it just felt like we weren’t playing as hard as we were at the beginning of the game. So you can’t get too high, can’t get too low. You’ve always got to stay balanced.”
Embiid grabbed a team-high 14 rebounds, but he also gave up a few key ones. The Knicks recorded 14 offensive boards as a team and dominated the glass down the stretch.
“Going into the game, the one thing we wrote on the board was, ‘We have to be the more physical team tonight.’ Clearly, we were not,” Rivers said.
Tobias Harris’ postgame comments echoed his thoughts after the Sixers’ season ended last year with a bitter Game 6 loss to the Heat in the second round of the playoffs.
“Really, they out-hustled us, got pretty much every single 50-50 ball,” Harris said. “Offensive rebounds were off the charts for them. That’s something that can’t happen for our group going forward.”
The Sixers signed PJ Tucker after that series defeat to Miami and hoped he’d make them a tougher playoff team. Tucker helped the Sixers start hot at Madison Square Garden by defending newly minted All-Star Julius Randle well, and he also chipped in 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting.
The 37-year-old agreed with Rivers that the team’s collective mindset was too relaxed following an ideal initial stint.
“I don’t know,” Tucker said of why the Sixers had inferior physicality to the Knicks. “That’s one of those things you never know. It’s how the game goes sometimes. I know we can’t have a lack of physicality like that and win.
“We had a pretty easy start, and I almost hate when we get easy starts like that. Everybody’s clicking, feeling good, the defense was clicking. And then we start making a couple of subs and everybody thinks it’s easy, and then the tide kind of changes. I’d almost prefer to be down, which sounds weird. But at least everybody’s antenna’s up, whereas when you’re up 20-something, it’s different.”
The natural question for the Sixers now is, "What’s next?" It wasn’t an especially pleasant subject for players to consider with 30 games left in the regular season and just one — Wednesday in Boston against the Eastern Conference-leading Celtics — before the trade deadline Thursday afternoon.
“We’ve got to win these games,” Harris said. “We have to win games where it’s not necessarily going for us. We have to figure out ways as a collective group to understand, ‘OK, we got away from what was working for us. Now let’s gather ourselves and let’s find some spark, let’s find some energy to will our way through.’
“Sometimes you’ll have those nights and you still won’t make the shots that you need, but the effort and the spirit is there. But we can’t allow nights like this to just take us out of it, and just think, like, ‘OK, we’ll see them again’ or ‘We’ll get on to the next game.’
“These are games, when you have those type of moments where you know you get away from what’s working, to be able to will your way through and get a victory. Those are big-time games, meaningful games. And those are things that we need as a group, because we know we’re going to face that type of adversity come the playoffs and true, real basketball games. Learning lesson for us, but that doesn’t happen overnight and we know we have a long way to go for that.”
Rivers stressed that he’s optimistic the Sixers can make the necessary progress, saying he can “almost guarantee you we’ll make that next step, but we’re just not there yet.”
As Tucker acknowledged, though, it’s not as clear as a player firing more catch-and-shoot threes or tweaking his technique in pick-and-roll coverage.
“I don’t know if there’s a certain thing you can do,” he said. “If that was the case, everybody would do it. You’ve got it or you don’t. Working on it is working on yourself in times where you’re not getting shots or you’re not scoring and doing stuff that fills the stat sheets. It’s taking somebody off the glass. ‘If this guy’s getting offensive rebounds, I’m taking him off. I’m not going to get the board, but he’s not (either).’ That type of thing … there’s got to be more of that.”
On a generally vexing night, James Harden provided perhaps the greatest level of simplicity postgame.
He was asked about the Mavericks’ reported trade with the Nets for Kyrie Irving, his former teammate in Brooklyn.
“It’s a trade that happened,” Harden said.