It’s that time of the season that has been all-too-familiar for most Knicks teams—the time when you care less about the results of the game and more about how the youth are progressing. A game was still played, and the final score reflects that the Knicks lost 125-109—their 11th loss in their last 14 games. It was a somewhat typical, but not as bad a loss as the score presents with little to complain about other than the pointlessness of 34 point-Burks minutes (yielding 6 points on 2-6 shooting and 0 assists).
Sometimes you just play teams that are better than you, and sometimes those teams happen to be ones featuring a recently-traded and freshly-motivated James Harden trying to prove he wasn’t giving half of his best effort in Brooklyn alongside Joel Embiid trying to prove he’s this season’s MVP. The two combined for a whopping 33 free throws as Harden dropped 29 points, 16 assists, 10 rebounds, and five steals as he often connected with Embiid (37 points and four blocks.)
The Knicks trailed by 9 at halftime after a hard-fought first half in which Evan Fournier continued his hot shooting with 14 points on 4-7 from deep (24 and 6-11 for the game) and Jericho Sims provided fundamental minutes off the bench with solid defense on Embiid, staggering screens, and 10 rebounds in just 10 minutes.
RJ Barrett cooled off from his 46-point, 9-rebound game vs the Heat with just 12 points on 4-13 at the half, but he and the Knicks found their footing in the second half. He attacked the rim for 12 second-half points on 5-9 shooting as Immanuel Quickley found his shot against fellow Kentucky alum Tyrese Maxey with 17 of his 21 points coming in the second half.
Barrett looked for his teammates as well to start off the fourth quarter, finding Obi Toppin for a dunk and Quickley for an and-1 layup for his fifth and sixth assists before extending the Knicks’ lead with a layup to make it a 96-93 game with 10:43 remaining in the game.
Harden refused to yield, however, exchanging layups with Quickley before knocking down a deep three to tie it before drawing free throws to give the Sixers a 100-98 lead.
The Knicks were further tested when those free throws fouled Sims out with nine minutes remaining in the game, only for Mitchell Robinson to replace him and immediately foul out himself 22 seconds later fouling Tobias Harris at the rim, reminiscent of his rookie year and continuing a recent stretch of disappointing play.
Despite Nerlens Noel listed as active for the second straight game, coach Tom Thibodeau elected to stick with him out of the rotation down the stretch against the dominant Joel Embiid. While Thibodeau going to small-ball with Toppin at center instead of the veteran Noel could be him finally catering to what Knicks fans have been begging for, he has also reportedly been dealing with plantar fascitis since the All-Star Game, in what has been an injury-riddled season for Noel.
The Knicks’ youth responded with a Barrett layup and Quickley’s loud three off Randle’s 7th assist with eight minutes remaining, keeping it close at 104-103. Even with no centers, the Knicks fought on with as Toppin cut in for a layup to make it 106-105 Sixers with seven minutes remaining.
In a manner similar to how Embiid controversially alluded to Ben Simmons costing them the game and momentum, Randle halted the run by excusably missing a corner three before inexcusably chasing for a steal in the backcourt on James Harden. Unsurprisingly, Harden got the ball easily and was able to find a wide-open streaking Embiid for a dunk, turning a three-point game into a two possession game at 110-105. Randle had a solid line despite the questionable decision-making with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists, albeit on just 4-13 shooting.
As it has all season, the Knicks offense faltered down the stretch, only scoring four more points the entire fourth quarter off an RJ Barrett layup and dunk as the Sixers erupted with a storm of Embiid free throws, Harden dishes, and Tobias Harris finally finding his shot, scoring 10 of his 12 points and both of his threes in the quarter.
Earlier in the season, it would have been a disappointing but perhaps encouraging moral victory, staying close with a contender until the last five minutes of the game with room to grow.
With so little season left, it’s harder to be encouraged by anything other than the fact the young players looked solid and that the season is almost over (and should land us a top-ten pick). As P&T’er xhu35 noted, this was a win for the tank. And with a seven-game road trip on the horizon, including their next game at Philly, there should be plenty more.