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76ers 99, Knicks 96: “Tough loss, winnable game”

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Two tough losses back to back.

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers
Noel blocked Harris like Philly blocked New York from the win.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The Knicks, shorthanded and tired-legged, played hard throughout but collapsed down the stretch in Philadelphia on Tuesday, losing their second heartbreaker in as many nights and falling to 20-21 in 2021, good for 8th place in the Eastern Conference more than halfway through the season.

New York was without Derrick Rose and Elfrid Payton, not to mention Mitchell Robinson, although the center is out of his cast and could be back soon. The 76ers, meanwhile, were missing MVP Candidate Joel Embiid. Like on Monday, when the Knicks lost in the final seconds to a Nets squad sans Kevin Durant, a victory was there for the taking. At first, they seemed determined to take it.

Randle seemed especially motivated to make amends for Monday, when he got so upset about a call in the waning seconds that he couldn’t contain his referee-induced rage. The All-Star power forward kicked off the game with a three, then assisted on a three by birthday boy Reggie Bullock (he’s 30) and canned a jumper over Ben Simmons, putting the Knicks up 8-2 and causing Doc Rivers to call a timeout less than three minutes in. Randle finished the period with 7 points, 5 boards and 2 dimes.

In what wound up being a sign of things to come, the Knicks missed multiple opportunities to build an early double digit lead, clanking threes (they were 3-12 in the period) and opening a window for Philly. The 76ers crawled through that open window, going on an 8-0 run to take a 12-10 lead. Randle tied it with a layup, and the teams traded baskets for a few minutes. A couple of those baskets came from starting point guard Immanuel Quickley, who had 7 points and 2 assists in the first, while one of the baskets was an 18-foot jump shot from Dwight Howard, who remains a muscularly maddening opponent.

Late in the first, a Taj Gibson bucket gave the Knicks a 21-20 advantage, and Mike Breen astutely noted that “this is a score from the 90s, Clyde.”

The bench burst into the second quarter with confidence, as Alec Burks notched a four-point play and Frank Ntililkina nabbed a steal that led to a fast break layup for Bullock. The Knicks lead hovered around five for a bit.

But Howard overpowered (11 points, 12 boards and 3 blocks on the night), the tribulations of Obi Toppin continued (he did basically nothing in about 7 minutes of action), and Ntilikina air-balled a baseline jump shot (Frank finished 0-4 on the night). Four minutes into the second, Tom Thibodeau removed Toppin and Ntilikina from the game with the Knicks up 33-31. RJ Barrett, who had been scoreless through the first 13 minutes of the evening, finally got on the board with a free after getting to the line on a strong drive. He only hit one of two from the line, another sign of things to come for the Knicks.

With less than five minutes to go in the half, Randle made an absolutely ridiculous layup in traffic but missed the accompanying free throw. Still, the look on Randle’s face after he hits the layup is that of a man who knows that he can just get to the rim if need be. Like, whenever he wants. Love to see it.

The Knicks continued to make impressive plays, including a Barrett-to-Nerlens Noel alley-oop and a give-and-go between Randle and Bullock that featured Randle passing it behind his back to Bullock for a three.

But because of missed free throws and threes, New York’s largest lead in the half — and ultimately the game — was only 10. It could have easily been 20; in the first half, the Knicks shot 5-15 (33%) from three (they’re 37% on the season) and 9-16 (56%) from the free throw line (they’re 78% on the year).

Shake Milton’s three-point attempt at the buzzer rolled around the rim an unnerving amount of times before finally falling out, and the Knicks went into the break up eight. Barrett began the third period with another alley-oop to Noel to put the Knicks up 10, but a Seth Curry four-point play made it seven again. A second Curry trey sliced the lead to four, and a floater shortly thereafter gave him the last nine consecutive 76ers points, putting Philly down only two.

Following a few more scores from each team, Bullock picked up his fifth foul with more than eight minutes remaining in the third. Every time the Sixers got within a basket, the Knicks would go on a mini run to increase the lead to six or seven. Going into the fourth, the Knicks were up nine. It wasn’t a blowout, but Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris hadn’t entirely exerted their will, Randle was having himself another All-Star performance, and there was hope the Knicks might make up for Monday’s crunch time failure against the Nets.

A unit featuring Ntilikina, Barrett, Burks, Toppin and Gibson opened the fourth, but Thibs called timeout to bring Randle back in after just a few minutes and the score 84-80. Just when it seemed like the Knicks might be in disarray, a three pointer late in the shot clock from Burks made it 87-80. Breathing room.

But Philly’s second unit fought and kept them in the game, and Simmons ultimately got two points on a goaltend despite this spectacular initial fast break defense from Noel, and suddenly the Knicks lead was down to two.

Each team scored, and then Curry hit a three with five minutes to go to give Philadelphia its first lead since the early second quarter. Randle missed an ISO jumper, Quickley was called for a foul, and it felt like the Knicks might simply not have the necessary legs. At this point, Randle had missed his last eight shots, and on one of his layup attempts he took a very hard fall. He looked exhausted.

But Thibs’ Knicks don’t quit. With one minute remaining, Randle dished to Barrett for a dunk. RJ proceeded to miss a fall away jumper with 20 seconds to go that would have tied the game, though. Then, the Knicks tried to play the same hard-nosed defense that nearly enabled them to steal Monday’s game against the Nets, but this time around the refs called fouls right away, sending the 76ers to the line and letting them clinch the game with free throws.

In the end, the Knicks took the L, 99-96. With the loss, they are in 8th place in the East, 1.5 games ahead of the Chicago Bulls.

Notes:

> Frank Ntilikina’s shooting ability is lost like Dr. Jack Shephard. He needs to be healed like John Locke.

> The Knicks didn’t shoot so great as a team, either. They went 8-24 from deep (33%) and 14-22 from the line (64%).

> Julius Freaking Randle, man. 19 points, 15 rebounds, 8 assists. Didn’t shoot great (7-19, 37%), but that’s okay. He’s only carrying the team every single night.

> Give it up one time for Nerlens Noel. Mitch may be back soon, but Noel has earned himself a hefty contract with his play in Robinson’s absence. He had 6 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks in 26 minutes tonight.

> Speaking of centers, there’s something valiant about Taj Gibson coming back for Thibs at age 35 and expanding his game to include three-pointers. Gibson’s only 3-12 from deep this year, but the defense has to respect that he’ll take the shot. Taj took 12 total threes through his first five seasons in the NBA.

> RJ was pretty solid again, although not spectacular, finishing with 17 points (7-17 from the field, 3-7 from the free throw line), plus 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 steal. When Barrett is ripe, he sure is delicious as Randle’s second banana.

> Thibs says there are a lot of positives to takeaway from both difficult losses in the last couple of days. When Thibs says to stay positive, you stay positive god dammit!

The perfect description of this game was laid out by at large, who lamented, “Tough loss, winnable game.”

The Knicks have a couple of days off before coming home to play the Orlando Magic. Gotta get back on track if we want the playoffs to remain a possibility. Have a lovely middle of the week, y’all. And sure, if you really want to, think about how the patience and footwork that led to this layup from RJ reminds you of Kobe Bryant: