The last time the New York Knicks beat the Philadelphia 76ers was April 12th, 2017.

Starting for your town, your team, were T.J. McConnell, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Alex Poythress, Richaun Holmes, and Justin Anderson. The Knicks had a lineup featuring Carmelo Anthony, Maurice Ndour, and Ron Baker. It was a close game but we wouldn’t confuse it for an instant classic.

This game, however, was pretty damn good. We got down-to-the wire basketball between a short-handed Sixers team and a New York squad that’s turning the corner under Tom Thibodeau. They just aren’t there quite yet.

What this one came down to was late execution, and with the game tied 92-92 with 3:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Sixers went on to out-score New York 7-4 with a smothering defense effort and a couple of smart isolation possessions from Tobias Harris.

Without Joel Embiid on the floor, they closed with Harris as the primary guy, and had Seth Curry involved, too, resulting in this taking place over the final five meaningful half court possessions:

  1. Curry/Dwight Howard pick and roll, missed three, offensive rebound, Furkan Korkmaz misses second-chance three-pointer
  2. Harris/Howard pick and roll, flush at the rim
  3. Harris ISO on Reggie Bullock, backs him down for a basket
  4. Harris ISO on Bullock, missed two
  5. Harris post up/ISO, couple of missed looks at the rim from Curry and Ben Simmons

Throw in a huge stop and a steal on the defensive end, and the Sixers just made more plays than the Knicks down the stretch (outside of the Korkmaz missed free throw, which may have iced the game).

But there wasn’t anything fancy in those late sets. They ran various forms of pick and roll and isolation, moved Harris and Curry around, and tried to force defensive switching into favorable matchups. That resulted in a couple of 1v1 possessions with the 6’9″ Harris against Bullock, who had five fouls at the time.

Afterward, I asked Doc Rivers about those fouls, and if Harris ISO or pick and roll is the best closing option he has without Joel Embiid on the floor:

“Yeah it’s a good option for us, and we’ve done it all year. And we didn’t really care about fouls. That’s one thing I don’t do. I think you get out of rhythm when you try to draw fouls from a guy who has five fouls. We were gonna run that action no matter who (was the defender), because someone is gonna have to switch on Tobias, a guard. I like our chances with Tobias in the post against a guard any day of the week. We didn’t care which guard. We were just gonna go for it, and it was a good option. We had Seth (open) if they helped, which they did the one time we got the three, so I thought our spacing was good as well.”

That play Rivers mentions is the loooong three pointer Curry hit to give the Sixers the lead with five minutes remaining on the clock:

When Julius Randle digs and shows help, he leaves a 44% three point shooter open. In that case, Harris just has to feel the extra defender and kick the ball back out.

Easy stuff.

This is a portion of those possessions that then closed out the game:

Again, nothing crazy. They just run Curry into Harris’ defender, try to get that switch, and then isolate that defender with Tobias. In this case, they were able to pull Randle off Harris, get Bullock on him instead, and then leave Curry hovering at the three-point line as an outlet.

“They kept switching, and for me it was just ‘go make the right play,'” Harris said after the game. “A couple of times I got in the lane, and felt like I had a good look, and a wide-open look, and just raised up and got it. In that moment I was just waiting to see if the double team was coming, because I knew I had Seth out there. He hit that big shot before, that big three, so that’s really what I was looking for, too. But once I saw my space and saw how much time I had, I was able to get to my spot and raise up and shoot it.”

In the clutch

One of things we don’t talk about enough with this Sixers team is “clutch” stats. The NBA defines “clutch” as any game where the score is plus or minus five points with five minutes or less on the clock. It’s a good way to determine which teams play well in close games, and which don’t.

The Sixers, for context, are the best clutch team in the entire league. 16 wins, five losses, and a .762 win percentage. They shoot 47.7% from the floor in these scenarios and have an 88.9 defensive rating and 25.7 net rating, which is incredible. Those numbers show that they really just lock it down late in the fourth quarter, and you saw it last night.

One other observation about the way they closed the game –

This was a good example of why the Ben Simmons jump shot/offensive game narrative isn’t that big of a deal right now. Even without Embiid on the floor, they were able to close with Harris running very simple actions. The ball didn’t have to be in Simmons’ hands at all. Stick him in the dunker spot and let him attack those weakside rebounds and keep the play alive.

It will mean more in the playoffs when teams game plan and try to force the ball out Embiid or Harris’ hands, but that’s further down the road. I imagine if you’re in game three of a playoff series, that teams might try to blitz or throw digs by peeling off with Simmons’ defender, but a coach like Doc Rivers should be able to counter most of what’s going to be thrown at them in the half court. For now, the pleasant surprise is the Sixers having two legitimate closing options that can play ISO or pick and roll, because at the beginning of the year we thought they had zero of those players on the roster.

Other notes

  • Rough Danny Green game. 1-10 from the floor and 1-7 from three. He should not Google his name today.
  • Rivers thought one of the keys to the game was actually Harris’ defense, which allowed them to guard Julius Randle 1v1 without having to throw an extra body in there.
  • Furkan Korkmaz, a three-point sniper, is only a 79% free throw shooter. I don’t know how that’s possible.
  • I watched this one on TV, and the crowd does sound good. Hard to compare to the live experience, but it seems like they found the right mix between volume coming out of the speakers and the natural sounds with the fans.
  • Some ridiculous blocks in this game. That Nerlens Noel/Harris sequence was something else. Same with Howard on Randle.
  • Wouldn’t mind adding a Tyrese Maxey vs. Immanuel Quickley floater competition to the 2022 All-Star weekend.
  • Nick Sirianni was at the game. Sixers now 1-0 when he’s in attendance.
  • The Knicks play hard for Thibs, but there’s just not enough offensive quality there. You can see it in their shot selection down the stretch, and the way they kind of withered at the end. They’ll turn the corner soon enough though.