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76ers 101, Knicks 95: “We don’t know how to finish games”

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We’ll always have the first quarter...

Philadelphia 76ers v New York Knicks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

In second grade a boy in my class named Michael Crooks moved away. After his last day I went home and buried my face in my pillow, sobbing. The thing is, I wasn’t really even friends with Michael. But him leaving gave me a reason to make something out of, if not nothing, nothing much.

The Knicks lost to the 76ers 101-95 last night in an inversion of their loss last week in Philadelphia: this time the ‘bockers got off to a big lead, held it most of the night, but faltered down the stretch. There are the usual suspects to blame for the loss: questionable rotations, reverting to hero-ball sans heroics, and the free throws — my God, the free throws.

But even without starters Al Horford and Josh Richardson, the Sixers’ talent level dwarfs the Knicks’. It’s pretty much that simple. Ask yourself this: who is the Knicks’ best player? Julius Randle is a four-letter word around here these days; RJ Barrett shows that promise, but still needs reps and seasoning. I’d say their best player is Marcus Morris. Marcus Morris is not more highly regarded than Tobias Harris, who is probably Philadelphia’s fourth-best player. When your best would be their #5, you’re probably going to lose.

Still, the heart wants what the heart wants, and it was clear from the jump the Knicks wanted this one. David Fizdale used his coach’s challenge a minute into the game, something he may have regretted a few hours later. The Knicks rode the three-ball early, hitting four early and getting out to a 15-4 lead. The ball was moving mindfully. Randle used his physicality in targeted bursts — more like a scalpel than a sledgehammer — and kept his head up, anticipating double-teams and passing wisely out of them. He was even harassing and pressing on defense.

New York, who so often are shredded giving up looks at the rim that lead to open threes for opponents, tightened up their rotations and recoveries and had Philadelphia taking long jumpers and not-utterly-wide-open threes. Randle facialized Sixer big man Norvel Pelle. Frank nearly did. An RJ three-point play and Damyean Dotson three put them up 13 after the first.

The second quarter featured Taj Gibson Euro-stepping past Joel Embiid and the Knicks busting out a 16-point lead; I’m not sure which was more unexpected.

The first 24 minutes featured the Knicks dunking, defending and draining from deep, while the Sixers couldn’t buy a bucket from long-range. But the half ended ominously: Dennis Smith Jr. went to the line with a chance to put the Knicks up 16. Instead he missed both and Furkan Korkmaz drove for an uncontested lay-in just before the buzzer. New York had the lead, but not the momentum.

The vibe was further furthered when the second half opened with Randle missing an iso step-back three followed by Harris blowing past Randle for a lay-up. Seconds later a Harris three cut the lead to single-digits and blood was in the water. Morris, sensing the rising stakes, went into playoff mode, jawing with Ben Simmons. The Sixers point giant had spent the first half in a languid, tryptophan-laced lucid dream, so points to Morris for waking him up; Simmons promptly threw down a breakaway dunk and drew a charge on Morris 45 feet from the hoop.

About midway through the third, Embiid went to the bench with the Knicks up six, giving them a chance to create some distance before the inevitable Sixer push. Instead they were ice-cold from the field and the line, and as soon as The Process checked back-in James Ennis III — playing the role of Knick-killer Mike Scott — hit a three to tie the game. As the third quarter ended, Embiid free throws put Philadelphia in front for the first time since they’d led 2-0.

If you wanna know what the fourth looked like, re-read the paragraph above about the first quarter and just flip it. The ball movement died. The off-ball movement, too. Fizdale and Morris assumed the position of an ersatz Mike Woodson and Carmelo Anthony, all one-on-one iso garbage, and when Philly doubled there were no counters to the counters. Meanwhile, Ennis the Third was true to his moniker. 18 in the second half for the Menace.

The Sixers went up by six, but God is a vengeful God, so after being knifed some twisting was required. Back-to-back Barrett bucketry pulled the Knicks to within two. Randle went to the line with a chance to tie it, but missed the second free throw. A well-meaning RJ drove into the paint and tried to find Mitch under the rim, but turned it over. Randle fouled Ennis on a corner three, though the replay showed it should’ve been offensive since Ennis stuck his leg out to draw the contact (this could be a reason not to use your coach’s challenge in the first minute of the game; not all minutes are created equally).

A Frank Ntilikina alley-oop to Mitchell Robinson missed Robinson completely but nearly went in the basket; Mitch rebounded and nearly converted, instead going to the line and missing one of his free throws. Randle took it right at Simmons in transition, but Embiid was lurking behind him for literally 50 feet and swooped in for the stuff. The Knicks couldn’t score, but bless their heart the defense remained stout and they kept on keeping on. With just under 3:00 left, Barrett tied it at 87. Then:

Robinson fouled out, which felt like a bridge too far. That didn’t stop Mitch from getting physical with the Sixers.

A curious sequence: Barrett went to work against Embiid and scored on him, making it 90-89 with 2:00 left. Embiid drew another foul and hit the free throws. Barrett drew Embiid again, only this time he settled for a long pull-up and missed. Fizdale curiously pulled Barrett to go with Wayne Ellington. Was he sending the rookie a message about shot selection? If so, is there a reason Randle and Morris never get the same message delivered? I dunno.

With Mitch out there was no rim protecting, so Harris hit a driving lay-up over Taj Gibson. The beginning of the end?

The middle of the end came when the Knicks were down four with 20 seconds left and Ellington airballed a corner three. The end of the end was seconds later, with New York down six: Randle inexplicably drove for two instead of waiting for the three-point attempt the Knicks needed; Harris saw this stupidity and raised it by fouling him; Randle saw that stupidity and raised it by missing the free throw on purpose (?!?), and the ball went off the Knicks out of bounds. They folded.

Zeroes abounded for the blue and orange, but I wouldn’t make much out of it. The better team won. You could literally see the moment in the second half when Philadelphia decided “OK, Simmons, bring the ball up every time, dribble left and find people.” Simmons irks, but that creep can roll. Same with Embiid. Who knows? With luck, the Knicks could be winning games like this in 2022.

Notes:

  • Trivia that came up in tonight’s broadcast: who was the last Knick to score 40+ in a game?
  • What to do about them free throw woes, Coach?
  • No Kevin Knox tonight. No Allonzo Trier. No Iggy Brazdeikis. I’m torn here. Ellington and Bobby Portis playing 25 minutes when three players you’ve taken in the last two drafts can’t get on the floor seems troubling. On the other hand, with the season already fated to end in the lottery and most veterans more receptive to fewer minutes in March than November, maybe it makes sense to lose with guys you could trade now and lose with guys you could develop later. Or is that just some Stockholm syndrome shit I tell myself to get through another hopeless slog of a season?
  • DSJ was pushing upcourt against Korkmaz on a 2-on-2 and didn’t even look to push to the rim; he just dribbled out to the sideline and gave it up to Dotson. It was a very Ntilikina-ish look, which is a weird look on DSJ. Between that and Frank trying to dunk over Pelle, there was some Freaky Friday energy happening Friday night.
  • On a single possession, Mitch kept Embiid from getting position in the post, then switched to Harris off a pick-and-roll and kept with him, forcing a turnover. When I think of positive developments this season, I cite RJ’s play and Ntilikina’s improvement. I’m not seeing a third yet. Mitch lasting 25-30 minutes a night would be a welcome third. He’s played 30 and 29 the past two games, his most all season.
  • I love Mitch. I can’t imagine the frustration of learning on-the-job like he’s had to last year and this. Having said that, can he please quit raising his hands in surprise after every. Single. Foul call. Most of his fouls aren’t close calls; they’re blatant. And when you’re a second-year player committing 6.3 fouls per 36 minutes, you know damn well you ain’t getting the benefit of the doubt.
  • No matter how much I write, there are three words that come up repeatedly that I can NEVER remember if they’re double-consonants or single: the R’s in “harassing/harassment” and the T’s in “committed” and “commitment.”
  • Clyde called Randle “very omnipotent” and I tried to picture that concept and my nose bled a little.
  • Randle and Embiid exchanged jerseys immediately after the final buzzer. I’m not bothered.
  • What do you think the Sixers’ upside is? When Embiid is sitting and with Jimmy Butler in Miami, that offense looks rough for looong stretches if Simmons isn’t out running. Lotta times when Simmons got the ball in the post against someone smaller, like Barrett, he was only looking to pass instead of shoot. Good teams will note that and exploit it come April, May and June. I wonder what that team’s ceiling is with those two as their at-times contradictory cornerstones.
  • Could Philadelphia running their offense so regularly through Embiid & Simmons have worked to New York’s advantage at times? Could that be something that holds them back when they get deeper into the playoffs? Even when Al Horford is healthy, wonderful as he is, he’s not going to take over the offense. Not the worst problem to have, but it is something they gotta figure out.
  • Courtesy of the excellent Sixers’ site Liberty Ballers: “Ennis...went off for a season-high 20 points on just five field goal attempts. Per Sixers Stats, he and World B. Free are the only Sixers to score 20-or-more points on five-or-fewer field goal attempts in the shot clock era. Ennis shot 4-of-5 from the floor, 3-of-4 from 3, and 9-of-9 from the foul line.”
  • The next time Embiid pump fakes from behind the arc and blows by a defender racing out to contest I’m going to scream. Relatedly, Embiid must get M-Rob to jump out of his shoes on 5-6 pump-fakes per game. LET HIM SHOOT FROM OUT THERE!!
  • I’m asking for y’all readers help with something. There’s a commenter here at P&T who has been banned numerous times and who repeatedly returns with a new username to subject us to the same tired homophobic, fatphobic, abusive language. Last night on top of their usual sad fare they called for violence against Ben Simmons and at one point suggested he should kill himself.

This isn’t about what’s funny or what’s not, and it’s not about free speech. P&T isn’t a government building. It’s a site I was first drawn to because of its unique combination of Knick knowledge and humanity. In this sense it either took or emulated the form of its creator, the one true Serth. Most of the time, I think P&T honors the character and intent of its originator. But I am done dealing with the same ugliness over and over again in game threads and comment sections. The world is rife with venues and stages where wanna-be comedians can test their act. If that’s your kink, go for it.

We’ve banned The Blockness Lobster a number of times, and they come back again and again. Maybe the rush of one out of every 100 of one’s comments turning blue does something for them that I can’t comprehend. I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I’m asking you, the reader, to stop engaging with them and their comments. We’ll ban them again and they’ll pop up with a new handle, crowing as if an unflushable turd is a victory over gravity rather than more unwelcome shit in a world full of unwelcome shit. The world has enough ugliness beyond our control for us to subject ourselves to one person choosing to pick the lowest-hanging unfunny fruit over and over.

  • Trivia answer: current Sixer and OAKAAKUYOAK Trey Burke.

Quoth Kaisersoser37: “We don’t know how to finish games.” Next chance to turn the corner is tomorrow afternoon vs. the Boston Celtics. The Knicks haven’t lost six in a row all year, so there’s a shard of shipwreck to cling to as the cold waters of another 60+ loss season slowly numb and envelop us.