Nothing about the Sixers’ Sunday night game against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden was attractive for those who enjoy offense.
The Sixers won’t much care about that, though. They earned a 101-100 overtime victory over New York despite a series of late-game miscues, winning the first game of their six-game road trip and improving to 30-13.
Tobias Harris missed two foul shots with 13.2 seconds remaining and the Sixers up three points, leaving the door open for the Knicks. Julius Randle (24 points) seized the opportunity as he took a corner three-pointer that bounced high off the rim and fell in. The Sixers had a foul to give and did not use it.
On the ensuing play, Ben Simmons couldn't connect with Harris on his inbounds pass, capping a nightmarish stretch of crunch-time execution. Randle missed a 27-footer at the buzzer, sending the game to overtime.
Danny Green stepped up in overtime, hitting back-to-back threes. However, his miss with a little under two minutes to go in overtime led to an RJ Barrett transition layup. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers looked incredulous after that sequence.
Shake Milton came up short on a potential go-ahead runner but Randle was called for a foul on Harris during the fight for the rebound. Harris nailed both foul shots and Randle's jumper from the right wing at the buzzer rattled around the rim and out.
Rivers joked after the game that the Sixers were fortunate he'd gotten to see his son Austin and his newborn grandchild earlier in the day.
“I was in a very Zen mood today," he said with a laugh. “This is one of those games where you don’t know how many mistakes we made in the last five minutes of the game, last 30 seconds before overtime, first three minutes of overtime — and still won the game. That’s the good thing.”
Simmons returned after missing Saturday’s game with left knee soreness and had 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Milton led the Sixers with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
Meanwhile, Harris had a rough shooting night before his decisive free throws, missing 13 of 18 field goal attempts. He finished with 20 points, four rebounds and four assists.
Joel Embiid (left knee bone bruise) and Seth Curry (left ankle sprain) remained out for the Sixers.
The Sixers will travel to California and play the Warriors Tuesday. Here are observations on their dramatic win:
Rivers weighs in ahead of deadline
Just like when they played Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers and Knicks were strong defensively and also misfired on quite a few decent looks. Both teams shot below 40 percent from the floor in the first quarter, combining for 38 points.
Green and Simmons each made impressive individual plays early on, with Green blocking an Immanuel Quickley floater from behind and Simmons flying over to reject a Barrett corner three-point attempt. And, just in case you’d forgotten about him, Matisse Thybulle came up with one of his trademark rearview swats early in the second quarter, denying Alec Burks.
Simmons, Green and Thybulle all project to be important pieces for the Sixers in the playoffs, provided they’re on the roster after Thursday afternoon’s trade deadline. Though the Sixers clearly have ways in which they can improve offensively, with adding three-point shooting and/or perimeter playmaking among them, the current defensive core is excellent, especially when Embiid is available.
It doesn’t sound as if Rivers thinks a major move is necessary.
“I like our team,” he said before the game. “If we make a move, great. If we don’t, I love our team. I don’t get lost in all that stuff. The way I look at it, I’m coaching this team and this team is really good. Obviously, getting Joel back is the most important thing. There’s no move we can make that’s more important than getting Joel back healthy.”
Rivers’ perspective is fair. He’s not prohibiting president of basketball operations Daryl Morey from making trades if he thinks they’ll help, of course, but Rivers has every right to believe in a team that’s adjusted well to injuries and leads the Eastern Conference.
For the time being, Rivers will coach the players he has and Morey will manage a telling few days on the NBA calendar.
“I’ve been in situations where it seemed like we were very active, and then I’ve been in situations where we haven’t been that active,” Rivers said. “I don’t feel that there’s a lot of stuff out there with us — maybe by (the media) anyway, who knows. I don’t pay attention to that part of it. But we’re just doing our jobs and just focusing on, like tonight, the Knicks.”
Half-court offense a massive struggle
Furkan Korkmaz was the first player to find his outside shooting stroke as he knocked down three long-range shots in the first quarter. He also tossed a lob to Simmons after securing a steal in the backcourt. Simmons threw down a dunk to give the Sixers a 15-4 lead.
After a nice scoring run by Milton in the second quarter, the Sixers had a 14-point advantage and it seemed they might be able to again cruise to a win. Milton’s ability to create mid-range shots for himself has helped him mitigate a subpar season thus far from three-point territory (30.6 percent entering Sunday’s game).
The 2020-21 version of the Knicks doesn’t like when things are comfortable for their opponent. They held the Sixers scoreless for the final 3:31 of the first half, ending the second quarter on a 13-0 run. Though the Knicks played their usual brand of physical, high-effort defense, the Sixers hurt themselves by turning it over four times during that stretch.
In the closing minutes, both Simmons and Harris committed turnovers that could've been very costly. The Sixers finished with 20 giveaways, and Simmons had seven.
“You’ve always got to give your opponent credit," Rivers said. “You really do. You’ve got to respect them. (Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau) is doing a great job. They’re physical, they get into you and they have great, active hands. Some of that might have been Ben missed a game, had a couple days off. But a lot of it was New York, for sure.”
It doesn’t excuse all of the Sixers’ offensive problems Sunday, but Curry and Embiid each would’ve been useful. Harris and Simmons were the Sixers' only real post-up threats, and the Knicks threw help defense in their direction whenever possible.
Milton leads Sixers' bench
Even with Simmons back, Tyrese Maxey remained in the Sixers’ rotation as Rivers used 10 players.
Based on Rivers’ comment Saturday night about Maxey needing to be better defensively and the rookie’s sparse playing time as of late, it looks unlikely that he’ll play significant playoff minutes. Injuries and unexpected absences arise, though, as the Sixers know. Maxey, who had six points on 3-for-4 shooting in 15 minutes, experienced a game in which defense was unquestionably the primary focus.
The Sixers had the game’s best bench player in Milton, and the players around him filled their roles well enough to win. He’s proven himself capable of scoring against tough defenses and tends to play with confidence and poise regardless of the situation.
Forty-nine points for Milton over the last two games is a big development for the Sixers after he was shooting 1 for 8 at one point Saturday against the Kings.
“Feels pretty good," Milton said. “Trying to get in a rhythm. Teammates are encouraging me to keep going and be aggressive. Trying to limit thinking and just play hard. Mistakes are going to happen but as long as my energy’s high, I can live with it.”