3 observations after shorthanded Sixers let lead slip in fourth

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The Sixers did a lot of good, scrappy work Friday night to overcome the absences of their All-Stars.

However, they squandered a 12-point lead in the fourth period and dropped to 4-6 with a 106-104 loss to the Knicks at Wells Fargo Center.

De'Anthony Melton air-balled a game-winning attempt from three-point range on the team's final possession. 

“Listen, our effort was great tonight," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said after the game. “Our execution has to be better. We have to take care of the ball down the stretch; we had several turnovers down the stretch. We didn’t get out to three-point shooters. But overall, from a coaching standpoint, you love the effort. You’ll take the effort every time.”

Tyrese Maxey scored 31 points on 10-for-29 shooting. Tobias Harris had 23 points and nine rebounds. 

The Knicks' Jalen Brunson posted 23 points and RJ Barrett added 22. 

The Sixers were without both James Harden (right foot strain) and Joel Embiid (non-COVID illness). Harden is expected to miss a month. 

This was Embiid’s third straight game out. The five-time All-Star ran onto the Wells Fargo Center at his typical time about 45 minutes before tip-off, but he cut his routine shorter than its normal length. He had his right shoulder taped up.

“We didn’t know (whether Embiid would play). Honestly, we didn’t know," Rivers said. “I was 50-50, watching him in shootaround. I thought he was really struggling. He went through, like, 25 percent of shootaround this morning. You could see he wasn’t feeling great. He showed up (pregame), went out on the floor, got shots up, and just felt bad.

“The way we look at it, we have the next two days off with practice, and now we can ramp him up and get him back. Obviously we want to win the game, right? And putting him on the floor would obviously help us. But we’ve got to also think of the long game as well, and so I thought it was the right decision not to play him.”

Danuel House Jr. was added to the Sixers’ injury report at 5:30 p.m. with a non-COVID illness and eventually scratched. Knicks big man Mitchell Robinson was ruled out after 12 scoreless minutes because of right knee soreness. 

The Sixers’ three-game homestand will end Monday against the Suns. Here are observations on their loss to New York: 

Unexpected lineups 

The Sixers started a unit that few could’ve projected heading into the season. Maxey, Melton, Harris, P.J. Tucker and Montrezl Harrell were their first five. 

The Harris-Tucker forward duo set a strong defensive tone. Harris stripped Robinson on the game’s first play. He also scored the Sixers’ first four points of the night, sinking a long, step-back two-pointer late in the shot clock and hitting a mid-range jumper after grabbing a defensive rebound and bringing the ball up. 

Later in the first, Harris was ready to fire one of the catch-and-shoot threes that he’s accepted as a major part of his game since Harden’s arrival, and he converted it off of a Maxey dish. With opponents recognizing Maxey’s ever-growing scoring threat and tending to collapse whenever he begins a drive, those sorts of shots shouldn’t disappear from Harris’ game. Still, it seems clear Harris will get more post-ups called for him and have fewer wide-open long-distance opportunities created by a star ball handler. 

“For me, an opportunity is presented for more play calls and more actions with the basketball in my hands," Harris said. “I’m going to embrace the challenge. ... You saw some of that tonight, and I think that’s the way it’s going to be for us. I’m excited for that and I’ll be ready for it."

Tucker swatted the ball from Julius Randle’s grasp, leading to a fast-break Maxey hoop that gave the Sixers a 13-5 lead. Randle couldn’t believe the lack of a call on the play. The next Knicks trip, he went at Tucker again and made a short, and-one jumper, much to the 37-year-old’s dismay.

While Tucker’s physical strength is especially valuable when the Sixers are down Embiid and need to find ways to cope inside, staying out of foul trouble will be a bit more important with the team's star big man (and Harden) sidelined. It’s against Tucker’s nature, but there might be situations when it’s wisest for him not to give every ounce of effort. He sometimes may have to weigh the risk-reward of an unlikely, positive defensive play against picking up a pivotal foul.

The Sixers played a second unit of Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Georges Niang and Paul Reed. Again, that lineup of players all on the 2021-22 team surely isn’t one the Sixers envisioned featuring. 

Thybulle made a running, lefty hook shot in his opening stint, but he came up short on a three-point try to end the first quarter. The Sixers finished a strange quarter up a point, 22-21. They shot 2 for 11 from long range, while the Knicks went 2 for 10. 

Reed, Sixers force a ton of turnovers 

Reed entered the game alongside Niang in the first period. He soon made a couple of unforced errors. Reed shuffled his feet after catching the ball on the short roll and was whistled for a travel. And, with a defensive rebound secure in Niang’s hands, Reed (accidentally) knocked it out. Niang was understandably not thrilled with his teammate. 

The Knicks began sloppily as a team, too. They committed eight turnovers in the first quarter and 22 in the game. Though some of those giveaways were self-inflicted miscues, more minutes for Melton, Reed and Thybulle does tend to correspond with the Sixers forcing more turnovers. 

Indeed, Reed’s brand of disruptive defense was excellent early in the second quarter. He got his first steal by blitzing Immanuel Quickley in front of the Knicks’ bench, sparking a Sixers fast break. The Sixers played zone on New York’s next trip with formidable defenders Melton and Thybulle at the top. Reed punctuated the possession with a block on Derrick Rose. Fifty-five seconds later, he intercepted a Rose inbounds pass that the Sixers turned into a Thybulle transition dunk. 

“Without Joel, we have to keep mixing our defenses up," Rivers said. “They had a lot of their talented guys on the floor. I thought the zone was really good tonight. I thought our trapping was really good tonight. I didn’t like down the stretch that they went downhill a couple of times and we should’ve been up, and we were not. And I thought those baskets were costly.”

While it’s impossible to quantify “energy” in basketball, Melton and Harrell certainly provided it when they shared the floor. After a high-flying Melton block, the 24-year-old chucked the ball down the court to Harrell, whose and-one layup gave the Sixers a 72-70 edge. Melton flexed his muscles and smiled as he watched Harrell slap hands with a fan in the front row. 

Reed deservedly played extended minutes in the fourth period. His block on Evan Fournier led to a Melton corner three that stretched the Sixers’ lead to 91-81. Though Reed is still unpredictable and does have plays that would frustrate many coaches, he’s a unique talent and capable of making a major, positive impact on some nights.

Sixers can't stop the bleeding in fourth

The Knicks blitzed and hedged on Maxey at times, although he’s not yet automatically drawing two defenders the way Harden does against many teams. 

He showed some polish as a passer, including on a play in the second quarter when he ran a side pick-and-roll with Tucker and found him with a nice pocket pass. Tucker flipped in a push shot to put the Sixers up 37-35. He’s very familiar locating that soft spot in the defense, and Maxey appears to be honing his understanding of when a safe, simple dish is the right play. 

Melton picked up two quick fouls, but he quickly started rolling in the second quarter. With Randle preparing to outmuscle him from the elbow, Melton poked the ball out of his hands. A few seconds later, he assisted an and-one Harrell layup and the Sixers took a 48-46 lead. 

Melton had an off shooting night (4 for 18 from the floor, 3 for 11 from three-point range), but he recorded a game-high nine assists, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks. 

“It’s going to be good, man," Maxey said of sharing the backcourt with Melton. “It’s going to be different, of course, but it’s good to have multiple guys that can make a play and handle the ball. He can, Shake can, Furk can. And then, when we get the big fella back, he can handle as well sometimes. But he was good tonight, man. He got some early foul trouble, which kind of got him out of rhythm. Other than that, he was really good.”

Maxey gave the Sixers a massive, star-level lift in the third quarter by answering a 66-59 deficit with a 10-0 personal run. Tucker made the last three points possible with a big back-tap offensive rebound after a missed Melton three. Maxey knew he was the hot hand and nailed a triple from the left wing. 

Milton (18 minutes) and Korkmaz (12 minutes) expectedly received increases in playing time. Milton made two lefty layups late in the third quarter. The first was a tough bucket through contact, while the second was courtesy of Maxey on the fast break and put the Sixers ahead 83-74. 

Sixers besides Harris, Maxey and Melton combined to start 0 for 10 from three-point range. Niang eventually broke the ice late in the third and Korkmaz, playing his first rotation minutes of the year, drilled one early in the fourth to stretch the Sixers’ advantage to 12 points.

The Sixers kept leaning on Maxey in the fourth and he went cold. He attempted a career-high 13 threes in the game and only made four of them. On his 22nd birthday, he couldn't hit an open look with 25.7 seconds left that would've given the Sixers a 102-101 lead. Several of his missed twos came on driving layup attempts where he felt he was fouled. 

Run-stoppers and foul-drawers are vital, and the Sixers ultimately did not effectively replace what Harden and Embiid usually provide there.

“They went small and they started switching everything," Rivers said. “And we stopped attacking. We stopped trusting. I thought we did a great job of drawing and kicking; they’re a help defensive team. We did that in the third quarter, and then in the fourth quarter I thought we tried to hold onto the game and hold onto the ball. And it cost us.

“End of games, you need closers. You really do. And that’s where the Joels and Hardens come into play. When you don’t have them, you have to try to make plays. And that’s basically what we were doing.”

Obi Toppin caught fire and made the go-ahead three-pointer over Reed. Villanova product Brunson then drove in for a clutch, and-one bucket.

Both those plays came against a Reed-Harrell frontcourt. What led Rivers to make that decision?

“Just rebounding and size," he said. “We went over the play — and they’d just made a three on Trez the play before. We told our guys not to get sucked in. We did. I thought we still could’ve gotten out there. ... And give (Toppin) credit; he’s making shots right now and we gave them both up."

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