7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: 76ers -10.5, Over/Under: 223.5
Rivals residing at opposite ends of their division clash tonight for the second time in four days, as the surging Philadelphia 76ers play host to the fading New York Knicks, from Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A year after being the pleasant surprise of the National Basketball Association, the Knicks (25-36, 12th in Eastern Conference) have unfortunately regressed back to the sad status quo that was their franchise from the 2013-2014 campaign to 2019-2020. With sixty-one games now in the books, it has become crystal clear that New York overachieved MASSIVELY last season; in his first year as Head Coach, Tom Thibodeau oversaw a 20-game improvement, which was good for the second largest jump in the NBA, ultimately earning the 64-yeaar-old Coach of the Year honors for the second time in his career. After nearly a decade of dysfunction and poor play, it appeared all too easy for veteran taskmaster to exceed what were embarrassingly low expectations, with the fan base craving any signs of improvement to be found. In that regard, Thibodeau certainly delivered, stabilizing the organization and sparking growth across the roster, with a slew of young talents emerging as playmakers, none more so than (versatile Forward) Julius Randle (19.6 PTS, 41.5% FG, 30.1% 3FG, 76.1% FT, 10.2 REB, 5.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.0 PER). In his seventh season, the light finally turned on for Randle, who enjoyed his first All-Star and All-NBA nods while posting career-highs in a slew of categories including points (24.1), three-point shooting (41.1%), rebounds (10.2), and assists (6.0). However, it appears that they have now become a victim of their own success, as expectations have risen considerably in the Big Apple, with its Knickerbockers proving unable to meet them. So, what in the name of Earl Monroe has happened to the Knicks, you ask? Well, how much time do you have? First and foremost, the reason that everyone views them as being gross overachievers a year ago is due to a dearth of internal growth, with many players plateauing or outright regressing, which has been the case with Randle. Now, we’re not saying that this guy has fallen off a cliff, but perhaps it was always a bit unreasonable to think that he would be able to maintain the level of play he exhibited a year ago; Randle has regressed across the board, with his perimeter shooting falling dramatically (30.1%) causing his scoring to dip to 19.6 points per game. It also hasn’t helped that (veteran Point Guard) Derrick Rose (12.0 PTS, 44.5% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 96.8% FT, 3.0 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 17.3 PER) has appeared in just twenty-six games and missing the last THIRTY-TWO due to an ankle injury. The youngest MVP in NBA history reunited with Thibodeau for the third time last season to bring a veteran playmaking presence off the bench, which is significant because the Starting Five has continued to be one of the least-productive in the league. With that said, the front office attempted to add firepower to this unit in the offseason, signing (veteran Point Guard) Kemba Walker (11.6 PTS, 40.3% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 84.5% FT, 3.0 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 14.3 PER) as a free agent, only for that experiment to fail miserably; after missing a slew of games to injury over the past three years, Walker simply never proved to be a good fit within Thibodeau’s system, with the New York native being frozen out of the rotation altogether back in late November before being reinserted following Rose’s injury. Since then, the 31-year-old has come to the agreement with the franchise that he will sit out the remainder of the campaign, with an eye towards looking to get healthy for next season, which will surely see him suiting up for another team. Furthermore, the Knicks have received next to nothing from (young Guard) Cam Reddish (5.4 PTS, 36.4% FG, 22.7% 3FG, 95.7% FT, 1.0 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.3 PER) whom they acquired via trade a little over a month ago, only for him to log a meager 12.5 minutes a night over eleven games. If Thibodeau wasn’t going to use him, then what was the point of trading for him in the first place? As progressive as they were last year, this situation is starting to smell like the Knicks of old. Taking all of that into account, there just isn’t enough firepower for the Knicks to compete against the better teams in the league; on the season, they’re averaging a disappointing 105.0 points (27th Overall) on 43.4% shooting (28th Overall), including a miserable 49.5% from within the arc (29th Overall), along with just 21.5 assists (29th Overall), all the while sporting an offensive rating of 108.7 (24th Overall). As you can imagine, those numbers have taken on an even greater meaning during this period without Rose; New York are a miserable 12-20 without him, averaging 104.3 points on 43.1% shooting and 34.1% from beyond the arc, with only 21.4 assists to boot. Furthermore, they’ve managed to win just THREE of their last eighteen outings, which has seen their once stellar defense falter in allowing 112.7 points on 46.0% shooting and 34.4% from three, with 25.8 assists opposed to 11.8 turnovers. Needless to say, given their lack of weapons this is a team that simply cannot win if they can’t get stops on the defensive end of the hardwood, which is a major reason why they’ve spiraled all the way down the standings out of the play-in field.
When we last saw the Knicks, they lost their fifth consecutive game in the form of a 125-109 blowout loss at home to the 76ers. Though this one was relatively competitive throughout three quarters of play, the hosts simply ran out of gas in the fourth period, where they were outscored 34-20. New York could muster just 9-of-25 shooting from the field (36.0%), including a dreadful 1-of-9 from beyond the arc (11.1%) in the stanza, where they also attempted only one free-throw and were battered on the boards 15-9. Giving further credence to the beliefs that the starting lineup just isn’t up to par, the only starter that even managed to score in the fourth was (Sophomore Swingman) R.J. Barrett (18.7 PTS, 41.7% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 68.6% FT, 5.7 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 13.8 PER), who followed up his career-high forty-six points against the Heat with twenty-four points on 9-of-22 shooting (40.9%), eight of which came in the final frame of play. In the end, Thibodeau’s charges shot 44.7% from the field, including 11-of-33 from downtown (33.3%), though were particularly dismal from the charity stripe where they missed thirteen of their thirty-five attempts (62.9%). Furthermore, their EIGHTEEN turnovers proved to be a decisive advantage for the visiting side, who manufactured those mistakes into twenty-two points going the other way, many of which coming in transition where they were outscored 18-11. Barrett and (French Swingman) Evan Fournier (14.6 PTS, 42.4% FG, 39.6% 3FG, 69.8% FT, 2.9 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.9 PER) led the way with twenty-four points apiece, with the latter knocking down 6-of-11 treys (54.5%), though together they combined for six turnovers. As for Randle, Sunday’s loss was nothing short of forgettable for the former All-Star, who finished with sixteen points on a miserable 4-of-13 shooting (30.8%), despite racking up ten rebounds and seven assists. (Sophomore Guard) Immanuel Quickley (9.5 PTS, 36.9% FG, 32.9% 3FG, 92.1% FT, 2.4 REB, 2.9 AST, 0.6 STL, 11.6 PER) again proved to make positive impact from the bench, chipping in with twenty-one points, eight of which coming from the free-throw line. That loss dropped the Knicks even further down the standings in the Eastern Conference, where they currently sit five games out of the final play-in spot. Needless to say, that’s a precipitous decline from owning the fourth seed a year ago, with this coming offseason shaping up to be a significant one for a franchise that time and time again has proven unable of sustaining success.
Meanwhile, at the top of Atlantic Division sit the 76ers (37-23, 3rd in Eastern Conference), who look to make their assault on obtaining the no. one seed in the East for a second consecutive season. 2.5 games behind the Heat in the standings, the Sixers stand remade following the Trade Deadline, and after a week to ponder what they’ll look like following the midseason blockbuster deal that netted them (All-Star Guard) James Harden (28.0 PTS, 57.7% FG, 57.1% 3FG, 94.7% FT, 9.0 REB, 14.0 AST, 2.5 STL, 39.7 PER), we’re finally getting to the answer to said question. And unsurprisingly, the answer is that they’re pretty damn good. Before we get into the impact that bearded one has made on his third franchise in two years, let’s take a brief walk through how he arrived in the City of Brotherly Love. All it took to acquire the three-time scoring champion was finally putting to rest the longest-running saga in the NBA, the status of wantaway Ben Simmons; after suffering an upset to the Hawks in last Summer’s Eastern Semifinals, the former no. one overall pick became the goat for said failure and instigated a lengthy standoff with the organization in which he willingly sat out the first fifty-six games of the regular season following a demand to be traded. This fascinating drama played out for months, as Philadelphia continued to fine him for every game that he missed, equating to roughly $23 million of his $30.5 million salary. While the argument could be made that they missed his services, particularly from a playmaking perspective, the Sixers nonetheless managed to march out to a 32-22 record prior to his trade, planting themselves in the thick of the race for the no. one seed thanks in large part to an MVP campaign courtesy of (All-NBA Center) Joel Embiid (29.8 PTS, 49.4% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 81.5% FT, 11.1 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.5 BLK, 31.9 PER). While he was nothing short of dominant last season, the 27-year-old has been even better this year, leading the NBA with a career-high 29.8 points per game on 49.4% shooting from the field, including 36.7% from beyond the arc, 11.1 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.5 blocks. For the second consecutive campaign he has managed to stay largely healthy, putting the foot and knee injuries that plagued him throughout the early stages of his career behind him. With that said, there is always the possibility that the big fella finds himself on the trainer’s table, and for that reason the pressure was squarely on (Lead Executive) Daryl Morey to find him reinforcements. However, the crafty Morey refused to deal Simmons away for even eighty cents on a dollar, resisting a slew of potential deals in an attempt to hold out for the acquisition of a superstar to pair with Embiid, and with less than an hour remaining before the Deadline, hit a grand slam in acquiring the services of Harden. Of course, Morey knew the 2017-2018 MVP very well from their time together with the Rockets, and once Harden let it be known that he would be in favor of a trade to Philly, while also making it clear that he would leave Brooklyn in Free Agency this coming Summer, the Sixers had all the leverage they needed in order to make the deal. In poaching the 10-time All-Star, Morey parted ways with Simmons, (sharpshooting Guard) Seth Curry, and (backup Center) Andre Drummond along with a number of draft picks, though managed to retain the services of a pair of their younger, more affordable players, such as (defensive dynamo) Matisse Thybulle (5.8 PTS, 49.8% FG, 28.2% 3FG, 72.0% FT, 2.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.8 STL, 1.0 BLK, 11.1 PER) and (sparkplug Guard) Tyrese Maxey (17.2 PTS, 47.7% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 86.9% FT, 3.6 REB, 4.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.5 BLK, 16.3 PER). Essentially, Philly turned a massive empty roster slot and a pair of supporting cast members into one of the most prolific offensive players that the league has ever seen. While Harden’s arrival comes with its own concerns, from both basketball and financial senses, it appears that any concerns on the hardwood have been quelled quickly, for he’s looked great and quite frankly so has Philly; since making his debut last week, the 76ers are averaging a robust 129.0 points on 50.0% shooting from the field, including 40.3% from downtown, all the while attempting a ridiculous 40.0 free-throws per game, and dishing out a healthy 29.0 assists in comparison to committing only 10.5 turnovers. Granted, it has only been two games, but the honeymoon between Harden and Embiid is indeed in full swing, with the former posting averages of 28.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 14.0 assists, while shooting a blistering 57.7% from the field and 57.1% from the beyond the arc. As for the big fella, he’s had nothing but praise for his new teammate and all the space that he’s affording him, putting up 35.5 points on 47.2% shooting, along with 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 seal, and 2.0 blocks over the last two contests. How long will the honeymoon last, you ask? Who knows? But in the meantime, you can bet that everyone in the city of Philadelphia will be enjoying the ride.
When we last saw the 76ers, they won their second consecutive game post All-Star Break, running the Knicks out of Madison Square Garden in a 125-109 romp. As we touched upon earlier, this affair was relatively close throughout the first three quarters of play, with the visiting side clinging to a 91-89 lead entering the final period. However, this is where Sunday’s game was ultimately decided, as New York simply couldn’t match Philadelphia’s firepower down stretch; (Head Coach) Doc Rivers’ troops outscored the hosts 34-20, shooting an efficient 9-of-18 from the field (50.0%), including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc (44.4%), and a perfect 12-of-12 from the charity stripe (100.0%). Those latter two figures made all the difference for Philly, who edged the Knickerbockers by twenty points in those two categories. In the end, the visiting side shot 48.7% overall, including 10-of-33 from three (30.3%), though really planted their flag at the free-throw line, calmly knocking down 39-of-44 free-throws, owning a 17-point advantage in that regard. As they were in Friday’s 133-102 rout over the Timberwolves, Harden and Embiid were dominant, with the former logging his first triple-double with his club, including twenty-nine points, ten rebounds, and fifteen assists along with five steals, while the latter posted thirty-seven points, with twenty-three of that number coming from the stripe. In fact, the Cameroon international made more free-throws than the entire Knicks team. Not to be forgotten, the supporting cast continued to gel with their new teammate, as Maxey scored twenty-one points on 8-of-14 shooting (57.1%), along with seven rebounds, three assists, and a pair of steals, while (veteran Swingman) Tobias Harris (18.3 PTS, 47.9% FG, 34.7% 3FG, 85.5% FT, 7.2 REB, 3.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 17.0 PER) put up ten of his twelve points during that decisive fourth quarter. Following the Harden trade, the Eastern Conference has been blown wide-open, with six different teams vying within five games of first place, meaning that a timely winning streak or prolonged losing streak could change the outlook of the standings drastically. After tonight’s second leg with New York, Philadelphia will encounter a number of those teams that they are in direct competition with, including a date at East-leading Miami on Saturday night, followed by a meeting with Chicago on Monday, before a reunion for Harden in Brooklyn.