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76ers 126, Knicks 111: “A long, unexpected journey, but the destination was never in doubt”

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NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last night’s 125-111 Knicks loss to Philadelphia was a George Romero zombie movie. Night Of The Tanking Dead. You know how those go. The only realistic outcome is annihilation. The heroes resist for a while, then are overrun. But heroes never die...or rather, they briefly refuse to surrender, nearly overcome impossible odds, raise your hopes that they and we can escape our destinies as worm diners, but in the end there’s just too many zombies. Or too many Sixers.

When facing an apocalyptic horde, whether that horde is undead or a starting lineup featuring 4 All-Stars, you gotta bring the heavy weaponry. The Knicks went super-big, returning Noah Vonleh to the starting four-spot, dropping Mario Hezonja from the four to the three and slotting 6’9” Kevin Knox in as the two-guard. The thing is, existential threats are usually bullies. They don’t consent to gentlemanly, one-on-one duels. The Sixers came out and hit 13 of their first 15 shots. Take that for size.

The Knicks were kept afloat early thanks to Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier. Dot hit five of his first six, including a super terrific happy trifecta over Embiid in the dying seconds of the first quarter.

Spoiler: Dotson would miss 10 of his last 11.

Trier had a measured, multifaceted night.

There was quite a bit of Mitchell Robinson and Luke Kornet paired up after their success late in Monday’s game at Cleveland. There was also more Knick zone defense, which was also effective against the Cavs and which at times flummoxed Philadelphia and helped the Knicks get back in the game. Then, at 4:24 of the second quarter, February 13, 2019, Kevin Knox ended Ben Simmons.

In honor of the deceased’s widow, Knox had the decency to miss the free throw. Spoiler: this is a zombie-themed recap. Simmons wasn’t actually dead. Not by a longshot.

Much of the first half was a back-and-forth affair, filled with colorful moments. With a couple minutes left before the break Joel Embiid tried to ignite Simmons on a fast break, but the pass was overcooked and nearly led Simmons and Sixer coach Brett Brown to merge into Bren Brimmons.

Shortly thereafter Embiid tried to lead another break by passing the ball up to JJ Redick, only Redick wasn’t expecting it or even looking toward Embiid, so the ball doinked off his head and ended up a turnover and an open dunk for DeAndre Jordan.

Still, the signs were there, at the half. Everything was pointing toward the Sixers overrunning the Knicks. Embiid was feasting. The Sixers had triple the number of free throw attempts. They were doubling up the Knicks’ points in the paint. They hit 63% of their field goals; on 24 baskets they had 20 assists. A late Philly flurry put them up 16 at intermission. That’s how the zombies get you: they overwhelm. You gotta get desperate. You gotta try anything and everything. What would the Knicks come up with?

Dotson replaced Hezonja to start the second half. Lance Thomas would make an appearance after consecutive DNPs, and he’d play well, even busting out the this-week’s-sign-of-the-apocalypse Lance Thomas One Man 5-0 Run. But Simmons had resurrected from the Knox dunk with all the powers of the underworld and he would not be denied; he nearly fouled out the whole Knick team over the first third of the third quarter. The lead reached 26. Midway through the third, Simmons and Embiid went to the bench, their team up 90-67. It seemed all was lost. But remember the prophecy: “and a little child shall lead them.”

As the Sixer stars sat and James Ennis was busting out bricks like Super Mario World, Robinson led the Knicks on a 10-0 run, grabbing rebounds, throwing down throwdowns, muscling in the occasional and-one underneath. Simmons and Embiid had to check back in like two minutes after they sat. To their credit, when they returned they played like it was game 7 of the conference finals.

To the Knicks credit, they kept coming, too. The zone once again held the fort, and a Trier three at the end of the third topped a 17-4 run that cut the deficit to single digits.

Zombie movies tend to throw unexpected hodge-podge groupings of survivors together, people you’d never see in close quarters in the world they once knew. Last night’s fourth quarter crew was mostly Kadeem Allen, Dotson, Trier, Lance, Kornet and Robinson. They played together and they played well. A beautiful look from Trier to Kornet cut the gap to eight. A later Luke off-balance three with the shot-clock expiring made it a six-point game.

What often leads the survivors to perish is greed and the inability to accept that the old world and its logics no longer apply. David Fizdale sent Knox in to replace Thomas and the moment the kid’s hands got on the ball he launched a three that missed by a country mile. Dennis Smith Jr. checked in after a long benching and on his first possession tried a jump-pass with nowhere to go, turning it over.

Robinson was the star of the night and has pretty much been the star of the season. That moment where you dare to hope, where your heart swells? The instant the prey believes, and dares to dream escape is within reach? That was this.

Sometimes your heart swelling just makes it an easier target for teeth. Dotson missed a wide-open three after the rejection, Tobias Harris hit a three on the other end, and that’s how quickly you’re down 10 instead of 4. Of course, heroes never surrender.

But all heroes die. 18 straight losses, 17 straight at home, 31 in 33 games. That’s being overrun by inescapable odds.

Notes:

  • Praise from Caesar is praise indeed:
  • Halftime heat: Simmons and DSJ got mouthy late in the half, and as the teams were leaving the floor MSG showed the hostilities continuing.

Didn’t help Smith any when this went down in the opening moments of the third.

DSJ seems to be a bit of a hothead. He seems to chatter a lot, and maybe he doesn’t initiate but he never passes up the opportunity to respond. I’m OK with that. Long as it doesn’t cause him to overheat and blow a fuse. Meanwhile, Simmons — as great as he is, and he is great — reeks of being too satisfied with himself. That’s the long way of saying he comes across as a dick. Jayson Tatum dunked on him the other night, Knox did tonight, and I pray divine judgment has decided Simmons will be yammed on every game the rest of his career. Couldn’t happen to a more deserving chap.

  • Simmons made it his mission to lock down Smith, and he did. It was fun to watch greatness inspired. We’ll see how Smith responds next time these teams meet.
  • This was Robinson’s fifth straight game in double-figures scoring. Also a career-high 13 rebounds and 4 blocks. Be my Valentine, Mitch.
  • Tired of seeing this every game: a Knick dribbler runs a pick-and-roll with Robinson and you can see their sole intent is to dribble just far enough to spring him for an alley-oop. But if the oop doesn’t materialize, they give up the drive, pick up the dribble at the free-throw line extended and look to throw it back out to someone behind the arc. Keep pushing, boys!
  • Frank Ntilikina best be studying Allen’s midrange floater game. Another strong game for Kadream.
  • Tonight we saw Kornet assume the position of “ballhandler” on multiple occasions. The Knicks don’t retire many numbers. They should retire that shit.
  • Four Knick bench players in double-digits. A season-high 74 points for the subs, to 37 for the starters.
  • Vonleh must lead the league in missed dunks and follow-ups at the rim. For every impressive throwdown from him — and there’ve been a few — there’s like four times as many improbable failures from in close.
  • Jordan had seven assists in just 20 minutes. Few basketball-related activities are as fun to watch as a big man who can dish.
  • Clyde Frazier said Embiid is the best big man in the game. You agree?
  • I could watch Boban Marjanović play all day.

Boban v. Mitchell is high-quality HD porn for basketball junkies. Or for you more puritan folks, they’re like watching Sagat vs. Dhalsim.

  • Twice T.J. McConnell had breakaway lay-ups that Kadeem never quit on. He stayed on him, contested all the way to the rim, and forced misses. That’s a credit to Allen. It’s also one reason I lose my shit whenever the lone defender who could bother a breakaway gives up on the play.
  • Mike Scott tortures the Knicks the way Mike Scott tortured the Mets in the 1986 National League Championship Series.
  • You’ll know the Knicks have turned things around when they can go two weeks without having to call their first timeout of the game before the first TV timeout.
  • Prefacing the MSG postgame show, Al Trautwig mentioned Knicks were down 26 but “to their credit they kept things interesting down to almost the last minute.” Years ago when the Knicks hadn’t sucked for all that long, they hosted Atlanta when the Hawks were and had been a bottom-barrel outfit for a while. Trautwig made a point about Atlanta’s struggles being due to the “streetball” style they played and that they deserved no praise for turning a blowout into a respectable loss. I got receipts, Al. I know who you are. Cash them checks. You don’t got the student loan debt I got. But you fake as fuck, man.
  • When I see Embiid and Simmons together, laughing together, I can’t help but think I’m seeing Durant and Westbrook all over again. I don’t see these two going the distance.
  • Seven years ago today:
  • There’s usually at least one thing to enjoy in Bill Pidto’s MSG 150 segment at halftime. But tonight it featured a clip of Celtics’ rookies coming to the arena carrying pink backpacks. Because that’s supposed to be embarrassing. Because pink is supposed to be feminine, and femininity is something men are supposed to look down on and avoid like the plague. Not only is that behavior still going on in 2019 abominable, not only is highlighting it for fun mortifying, but Pidto doubled down by saying “sometimes it’s rough to be a rookie in the NBA.” You know what’s rough, Bill? Being a female anywhere on Earth, in every time period of human history from the beginning up until today and tomorrow, too.
  • Maybe DSJ was right to refuse Phil Jackson offering him octopus to eat.

Quoth NoZing Kristaps Me: “...a long, unexpected journey, but the destination was never in doubt.” If you can enjoy the journey and persevere without regard for its end, you have found the meaning of life, friend-o. Tonight the journey takes the Knicks to Atlanta for their last game before the All-Star break. One last storm before the calm. See y’all then.