NEW YORK — Despite a dream start, the Sixers suffered their first road loss of 2023 Sunday night at Madison Square.
They dropped to 34-18 on the season with a 108-97 defeat to the Knicks.
Joel Embiid had 31 points and 14 rebounds. James Harden posted 12 points and 12 assists.
Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (right thumb surgery) was out. New York got 24 points on 8-for-19 shooting, nine rebounds and seven assists from All-Star forward Julius Randle. Jalen Brunson recorded 21 points and seven assists.
The Sixers’ final game before the trade deadline Thursday afternoon will be Wednesday night in Boston against the Celtics. Here are observations on their first away defeat since a Dec. 30 loss to the Pelicans:
Tucker the scorer?
PJ Tucker scored the Sixers’ first five points, equaling his total from the prior four games combined. Both buckets were off of passes from Harden, who had seven first-quarter assists.
Tucker also had a strong start defensively against Randle, who’d posted 25 first-half points in the Knicks’ Christmas loss to the Sixers. On one impressive possession, Tucker and De’Anthony Melton effectively neutralized a Brunson-Randle pick-and-roll. The 37-year-old then played physical perimeter defense on Randle and pulled his body away when Randle tried to toss up a runner and draw a foul.
The Sixers’ team defense was good overall in the first quarter, although they were somewhat fortunate that the Knicks missed their first eight three-point attempts. That included three misfires from Immanuel Quickley, a surprise starter after the Knicks announced RJ Barrett was doubtful because of an illness mere seconds before tip-off. Barrett ultimately did not play.
The Sixers had early success with double drag actions involving Embiid and Tucker as a way to spread the floor and eventually give Embiid room to do his thing at the elbow. They were superior to New York in transition, too. A fast-break, and-one Embiid layup put the Sixers up 26-12. That lead grew as large as 21 points when Tyrese Maxey scored almost immediately after checking in.
Maxey is obviously much more known for his offense than Tucker, but the veteran forward was legitimately impactful on both ends to begin Sunday’s game. He finished with 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting, reaching second figures for the second time as a Sixer.
Healthy lead disappears with bench on floor
The Knicks’ response to Maxey’s second hoop was a 17-0 run spurred by their second unit.
Miles McBride finally hit the Knicks’ first long-range jumper with 1.4 seconds left in the first quarter and Evan Fournier drilled another at the start of the second. The Sixers clearly did not play well during New York’s run, but their favorable early luck also took a steeply negative turn. After Melton banked in a first-quarter three, he saw one go in and out in the second. Maxey and Shake Milton came up empty in the paint a few times and Quentin Grimes’ mid-range jumper trimmed the Sixers’ lead to 35-32.
Sixers head coach Doc Rivers continued to justifiably treat the backup center position as up for grabs. There’s no question it’s a relatively shaky spot for the Sixers leading into the deadline. Montrezl Harrell played three minutes Sunday and was a minus-15. He has not appeared lately like a player with a good chance of making a positive impact if the Sixers were to hand him playoff minutes. The team was outscored by 14 points during Paul Reed’s eight minutes.
Though the Sixers stabilized a bit when Rivers used Harden and Tobias Harris alongside Maxey, Georges Niang and Reed, the team struggled to build a significant lead again. Harden in the second quarter hit the front rim on one pull-up three-pointer and air-balled another jumper. He also missed back-to-back free throws. Outside of Melton, the Sixers shot 1 for 10 from three-point range in the first half and led by only two at the break.
Starters can't save day
Just like on Christmas, defensive rebounding was predictably problematic for the Sixers.
With Robinson out, Jericho Sims gave the Sixers trouble in that area; he had four offensive boards before halftime. While Rivers was optimistic in the preseason that this season's Sixers could crash the offensive glass without damaging their transition defense too severely, they’ve again been a bottom-five offensive rebounding team. That’s made every extra possession conceded hurt a tad more.
Sims and backup big man Isaiah Hartenstein managed to avoid heaps of quick fouls, though Embiid still drew 19 free throws and converted 18. Embiid wasn’t his best offensively Sunday and had a couple of unforced turnovers, but creating contact and then hitting foul shots has become a reliable go-to for him.
Rivers was willing to tinker in a few ways throughout the game. In addition to the switch from Harrell to Reed, he changed the primary defender on Brunson from Melton to Harris and mixed up lineups. However, he still rode with an all-bench unit to begin the fourth quarter and that stint exacerbated the extreme plus-minus disparity between the starters and bench players. Following an and-one Maxey layup, the Knicks replied with a 10-0 surge and took an 86-82 edge on a Fournier three over Harden.
The Sixers were improved on the defensive glass for much of the second half, but Randle and Hartenstein each collected massive offensive rebounds on one fourth-quarter possession, enabling Fournier to make one of his game-high five triples. Hartenstein later snagged a missed Brunson foul shot and McBride ended up nailing a corner three to put the Knicks ahead by eight points.
The fact that the Sixers' bench was so thoroughly outplayed by New York's had to mean those types of plays were especially dejecting. Tough to lose a game in which your best player (Embiid) is plus-18, but the Sixers did it Sunday.