3 Observations: Sixers Cough Up 20-Point Lead in Disappointing Loss to Knicks

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers put together one of their worst performances of the season, coughing up a 20-point lead. They fell to the New York Knicks 108-97 in a road matchup at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night. This was the second time in the span of a week they squandered a 20-plus point lead.

Joel Embiid, questionable coming in with left foot soreness, led the Sixers with 31 points and 14 rebounds. James Harden added in 12 points, eight rebounds, 12 assists, two steals and a block.

The Knicks were without Mitchell Robinson (right thumb surgery). RJ Barrett was a late scratch due to an illness. Julius Randle led them with 24 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Jalen Brunson finished with 21 points, five rebounds and seven assists.

The Sixers now sit at 34-18 on the season. They next take on the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. Here are three observations from the loss:

Harden orchestrates first quarter clinic

The Sixers got off to a good start behind, albeit in an unusual manner. P.J. Tucker, usually known for his defensive ability, scored the team’s first five points of the night. His first bucket was a layup coming off a no-look pass from Harden. He then hit a 3-pointer from the corner off of another feed from Harden. Tucker nearly doubled his average point production (3.1) within the first three minutes of the game. He went on to finish with 10 points, marking the first time he scored in double figures since when he scored 13 points on Oct. 31 against the Wizards.

Harden did a fantastic job orchestrating the Sixers’ offense in the first quarter. Despite not scoring a single point in the opening quarter, his fingerprints were all over things. After getting assists on both of Tucker’s shots, he dished another one on an Embiid mid-range jumper. On the following possession, he drove and kicked it to to De’Anthony Melton for an open 3-pointer. A few minutes later, he made a brilliant pass down the court to Tobias Harris for an alley-oop layup. Harden recorded seven assists and no turnovers in the first quarter.

While Harden was commanding the offense, Embiid presented a matchup nightmare for the Knicks’ big men. He got Jericho Sims to commit two early fouls using a combination of finesse and physicality. Embiid scored 11 points while shooting 7-of-7 from the free-throw line in the first quarter.

By the time both Embiid and Harden had checked out of the game with 1:41 remaining in the first quarter, the Sixers had opened up a 35-15 lead. They had everything clicking on both ends of the floor. Defensively, they forced the Knicks to miss their first eight 3-point attempts of the game. On offense, they dominated both in transition and in the half-court. The Sixers put on a clinic for much of the opening quarter.

Knicks recover behind Sixers’ lineup mismanagement

For as good as things were going for much of the first quarter, once Embiid and Harden went to the bench everything began to fall apart. The offense stagnated, resulting in possessions ending in a Shake Milton missed contested 3-pointer and Montrezl Harrell having to heave up a covered mid-range jumper at the end of the shot clock. The Knicks, upon Embiid going to the bench, started having some success around the rim. Randle made a layup and drew fouls on consecutive drives to the basket against Tucker and Georges Niang.

The Knicks closed the deficit to three points, 35-32. They went on a 17-0 run between the 1:41 point of the first quarter and 10:02 mark of the second quarter. Once the starters came back in, things were stabilized but the damage was done at that point. The lineup the Sixers had on the floor during this stretch was composed entirely of bench players, something head coach Doc Rivers often goes to.

The struggles with the all-bench unit have happened too often. There is no reason why Rivers should be utilizing an all-bench lineup at this point. One of Embiid or Harden should be on the floor at nearly all times. Having Tyrese Maxey come off the bench to helm the second unit is not enough to turn that unit into a consistent, productive lineup. There has to be a moment where Rivers stops trying to run an all-bench lineup out there. If he continues to do this, it very well could cost them in the postseason.

One of the issues with the all-bench unit is a lack of any production from the backup center. Harrell was subbed out with 10:24 remaining in the second quarter. In just three minutes of action, the Sixers were outscored by 15 points. Paul Reed came in for Harrell and did not do much better. He was a minus-four in three minutes in the second quarter. The Sixers were outscored by 19 points in the six minutes Embiid was off the floor in the first half. While the lineup mismanagement and the glaring backup center issue definitely hurt the Sixers, it was not the only thing that cost them the win.

Reed received the backup center minutes in the second half. The results continued to be porous. In five minutes in the second half, beginning with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter, the Sixers were outscored by 10 points. Reed finished the game with two points and a foul while being a minus-14 in eight minutes. In 11 minutes combined between Harrell and Reed, the Sixers were a minus-29 compared to Embiid, in 36 minutes, finishing as a plus-18.

Sixers get outworked, collapse in fourth quarter

The Sixers went into the fourth quarter hanging onto a 79-76 lead. The lead did not last long as the Knicks began to heat up from beyond the arc while the Sixers offense sputtered down the finish. The Knicks took the lead, 83-82, on an Obi Toppin free throw with 9:12 remaining. They never looked back from there. Evan Fournier drilled a step-back 3-pointer to extend the Knicks lead to four points. The Sixers stuck around for the next few minutes until Fournier connected on another 3-pointer to raise the deficit to seven points. Fournier added to the lore of him being a Sixers killer, finishing with 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc.

Harden made a layup to make it a 91-88 game with 5:21 remaining. It was still a very close game, but the Knicks went on to break the Sixers’ back. The Knicks had a possession where they grabbed three offensive rebounds before Fournier knocked down yet another triple. Just over a minute later, the Knicks once again got three points off an offensive rebound. Brunson missed a free throw, but Isaiah Hartenstein grabbed the rebound over Harris to create an extra possession. Miles McBride then put the dagger in the Sixers by nailing a corner 3-pointer to increase the Knicks’ lead to eight points with 3:22 remaining.

Poor rebounding was an issue for the Sixers all night, so it was only right for it to be what did them in. Embiid and the remainder of the Sixers roster put forth no effort on the glass in the fourth quarter. The Knicks were the team playing on the second half of a back-to-back, but you would not be able to tell that from watching the game. New York out-rebounded the Sixers 14-8 on the offensive glass. This resulted in a 20-7 edge in second-chance points.

The Sixers as a team collapsed in the fourth quarter, allowing the Knicks to outscore them 32-18. Defense and rebounding were issues, but their lack of fourth-quarter offense also cost them. The Knicks, a below average defense, were able to prevent the Sixers from getting any open looks. The results and effort from the Sixers in the fourth quarter did not reflect a team with championship aspirations.

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