Joel Embiid had it rolling midway through the fourth quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ Christmas Day game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He was sitting on 31 points, a performance that had the makings of another monster night for the NBA’s scoring leader.
And yet, on perhaps the biggest regular-season stage the league has to offer, the Sixers’ franchise player was content to play bystander.
After the Sixers secured a defensive rebound, Embiid pointed at Georges Niang. Embiid makes more than $30 million more per season than Niang, but he saw that his teammate was playing a key role in putting the Knicks’ defense in a bind. Specifically, New York’s Julius Randle was having trouble defensively whenever Niang set a screen for James Harden. So, Embiid pointed at the man known as “The Minivan.”
Niang, who nailed a 3-pointer on the same pick-and-pop action the previous possession, struck again. Harden drew two defenders, and when Jalen Brunson rotated off his man to help Randle, Niang quickly moved the ball to De’Anthony Melton. Then, after Melton drove and kicked the ball back to Niang, the Sixers’ leading 3-point shooter on the season was wide open.
As Embiid watched, he liked what he saw. The second Niang let the shot go, Embiid unfurled his arms in anticipation. Once the ball dropped through the net, Embiid walked to the corner to scream at the New York crowd. He knew a timeout was coming, just like he knew a Niang 3-pointer was coming a few seconds earlier.
The Sixers beat the Knicks 119-112 in the Christmas matinee, extending their winning streak to eight games and their overall record to 20-12 as they continue to surge up the standings. And it’s that specific sequence, with an overwhelming level of offensive talent choosing from a menu of appealing options, that makes you wonder how the Sixers arrived here at this point, just 2.5 games behind the best record in the NBA.
It’s not a surprise that the Sixers find themselves in this position at Christmas. But the way they have done it has not gone to script. Heading into the season, the Sixers’ blueprint to success was “elite offense, slightly above-average defense.” Even after shredding the Knicks on Sunday, the Sixers are averaging just 113.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, good for 14th in the league.
But this offensive unit that was on display at the Garden? That was no average offensive unit.
Some of the so-so offensive output this season comes down to Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey all missing significant time with injuries (Maxey is still out after fracturing his foot five weeks ago). Now, Embiid and Harden, at least, have both rounded into form as we near the halfway point of the season.
Embiid, who has been dominant for close to two months, shook off an uncharacteristically rough first half to score 35 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field against the Knicks. After relying on the free-throw line to keep him afloat, a tool he can use to raise his floor during down performances, Embiid found a rhythm once he returned from the locker room after halftime. He shot 8 of 12 in the second half and made it look easy.
The Knicks played single coverage against the Sixers’ star big man. Mitchell Robinson is a strong defender, but on this play, Embiid casually walks him down the lane and flips in a hook shot over him.
As the game moved along, Embiid was more patient in waiting out the help defense and scoring. When the Knicks’ defense did show help, Embiid found PJ Tucker for a 3-point play. Now that Embiid has improved his passing and floor vision, there is no good way to defend him.
Harden saved one of his best offensive games of the season for the big stage, finishing with 29 points, 13 assists and just one turnover. Since stumbling in Houston in his first game back from injury, Harden’s numbers have been excellent: 21.6 points and 12.8 assists per game on 61 percent true shooting. On Sunday, Harden’s scoring kept the Sixers afloat when Embiid was resting. Montrezl Harrell, Embiid’s backup, finished a plus-13 in 14 minutes despite shooting 0 of 2 from the field. That was primarily Harden’s doing.
Harden shot 5 of 11 on 3-pointers and 10 of 11 from the free-throw line. When he picked on Randle and the other Knicks’ weaker defenders during ball-screen actions, he splashed some deep 3s.
Of course, this game would have been less entertaining if the Sixers hadn’t waited until the fourth quarter to stop the Knicks’ offense. That is the other confusing end of the spectrum with this Sixers season to date. The Sixers rank fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions this season, which is an excellent mark. But it sure didn’t feel like one was watching one of the league’s elite units when the Knicks cruised to 95 points through three quarters.
The main stat that calls the 76ers’ high-defensive ranking into question is that opponents are only shooting 32.7 from beyond the arc, last in the NBA. There is good reason to believe that at least some of that cold shooting is luck breaking in the Sixers’ direction rather than something Philly is doing to limit open 3-point looks. The Knicks, particularly Brunson and Randle, got whatever they wanted in isolation for long stretches of the game. Tucker, who was brought in primarily to bolster the defense, was consistently dusted off the dribble by Randle, who scored 35 points.
The Sixers settled on a zone defense that slowed the Knicks down in a 16-point fourth quarter, but that seems like more of a temporary solution than a primary one. The Sixers are playing zone on 6.5 percent of their defensive possessions, the sixth-most in the league, according to Synergy Sports. It’s a strategy Doc Rivers has leaned on when the man-to-man defense has looked a step slow. The Knicks also pummeled the Sixers on the defensive glass for stretches, finishing the game by rebounding a healthy 32.6 percent of their misses.
But the Sixers flexed some versatility as well. Melton sprinkled in some hot shooting (5 of 7 from beyond the arc) to go with his defense. Plus, the Sixers subbed Niang in for Tucker in the fourth quarter, something they have done frequently of late. With Tobias Harris’ improvement as a catch-and-shoot player, the Sixers have a bunch of options around the Harden-Embiid two-man game. It’s much easier to defend when the other team needs to take the ball out of the net.
After Niang’s 3-pointer, the Sixers went back to that same action. When the Knicks switched Randle onto Harden, he dusted him in isolation.
It’s unclear what the future holds for the team. But on Christmas in New York, the Sixers played as a team and showed offensively how prolific they can be.
(Top photo of Joel Embiid: Dustin Satloff / NBAE via Getty Images)