Sixers observations

3 observations after another Embiid injury scare, Sixers' tight Game 1 loss to Knicks 

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NEW YORK — The Sixers started their postseason Saturday night at Madison Square Garden by losing a heart-racing, back-and-forth contest with the Knicks.

They're down 1-0 in their first-round playoff series following a 111-104 defeat.

Joel Embiid played 37 minutes despite another major injury scare (more on that below) and posted 29 points, eight rebounds and six assists. 

Tyrese Maxey had 33 points and four assists.

Knicks star Jalen Brunson recorded 22 points on 8-for-26 shooting, seven rebounds and seven assists.

Josh Hart tallied 22 points and 13 rebounds. Miles McBride scored 21 points and shot 5 for 7 from three-point range.

The Sixers were without De’Anthony Melton (back injury recovery) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise). All-Star Knicks forward Julius Randle is out for the season following right shoulder surgery. 

Game 2 will tip off Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET. Here are observations on the Sixers' Game 1 loss:

Embiid, Sixers throw strong first punch 

The Sixers very much enjoyed no longer having to face the Heat zone defense that had flummoxed them Wednesday during their comeback play-in tournament win.

Embiid set a tremendous tone, hurting the Knicks from both the perimeter and the interior. He made a trailing, top-of-the-key three-pointer for the Sixers’ first bucket, converted two early and-one hoops inside, and scored the team's first nine points of the night. 

When the Knicks double teamed Embiid in the middle of the floor, he diagnosed the situation and gave the ball up. The Sixers worked it around until Tobias Harris drained a corner three. That shot alone put Harris over his scoring total from his March 12 outing at the Garden.

A Maxey triple off his two-man game with Embiid lifted the Sixers to a 17-7 lead. They began 6 for 7 from the floor as a team. 

The Knicks were selective early about throwing help defenders at Embiid, regularly trusting Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson to hold their own against him. Almost every Embiid touch produced something positive for the Sixers in the first quarter. Soon after Robinson subbed in, Embiid attacked him from the post and powered through contact for a layup. Two plays later, Embiid dished to Kelly Oubre Jr. in the right corner and the duo executed a slick give and go. 

All told, Embiid finished the first period with 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, three rebounds and two assists. 

Another massive scare 

In contrast to the Sixers, New York opened 3 for 15 from the field. Rebounding was the best aspect of their offense in the early going. The NBA’s top offensive rebounding team this season posted seven quick second-chance points. 

Oubre expectedly started on Brunson. However, the Knicks worked to create switches and get Brunson more desirable matchups. For instance, they used a double drag action to try to ensure Maxey needed to defend Brunson. Nicolas Batum was next up on Brunson and stayed tight to the All-Star guard’s body, trying to limit his touches. Batum picked up right where he’d left off Wednesday, sinking a catch-and-shoot wing three on his first touch. 

Overall, the Knicks’ second unit was decisively superior to the Sixers’ in the first half. Bojan Bogdanovic and McBride each knocked down two long-range jumpers during a New York surge and the score was even at 40-all when Embiid subbed back in. The Knicks’ three-man bench racked up 26 first-half points, including 16 by McBride. He drilled his fourth triple late in the second quarter and the Knicks went into halftime with a 12-point advantage. 

Embiid’s injury scare easily trumped everything that had preceded it. 

He pulled off a spectacular highlight late in the second period, tossing an alley-oop to himself off the backboard and throwing down a thunderous slam. Embiid then almost immediately crumpled to the ground and put both hands on top of his head.

During the ensuing timeout, Embiid elevated his left knee and was tended to by the Sixers’ training staff. He eventually rose and walked gingerly back to the Sixers’ locker room under his own power.

Though Paul Reed looked ready to start the second half, Embiid walked back out on the court with under 30 seconds until the third quarter. In a very similar series of events to the Sixers’ penultimate regular-season game vs. the Magic, Embiid went the whole second half after a seriously worrisome play. 

“I knew when I went in at halftime that they were checking him and that he was up and moving,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “And they did say, ‘We’re seeing …’ They didn’t rule him out yet. So it just took all the way until the end there to get him ruled back in, allow him to play.”

Nurse had no further concrete details on Embiid.

“Just like after every game, we’ll assess him and see how he’s doing,” he said.

Embiid himself did not speak with reporters on the record postgame.

Saturday’s scare would’ve been highly concerning in any circumstances, but Embiid’s history meant just about any grim thought was reasonable. The reigning MVP has had injury problems in every postseason he’s played besides 2020. Game 1 was only his seventh appearance since returning from the left meniscus injury that sidelined him for all of February and March.

His teammates appreciated Embiid's resolve to keep playing.

“It’s tough seeing your brother go down,” Maxey said. “You just kind of feel for him, pray for him, and hope he’s OK. I was glad to see him when we got back to the locker room, and he said he was going to go back out there and give it a try. So hats off to him for his determination and his will to win.”

Knicks pick up Brunson, hit clutch jumpers

Starting guards Kyle Lowry and Maxey played giant parts in the Sixers wiping out the Knicks' lead.

Lowry (18 points) hit a three and drew a foul on Hartenstein while shooting behind the arc. Maxey raised his game in the third quarter with driving layups galore and an impressive rearview block on Brunson.

The Sixers continued their diligent work on Brunson and had sustained zone defense success against New York in the second half. Though Embiid's movement was labored at times, he played effective back-line defense that enabled his teammates to be aggressive and sprinkled in several offensive highlights as well.

He nabbed a steal, started a fast break, and threw a sensational one-handed bounce pass ahead to Oubre for a dunk.

The Knicks' offensive rebounding kept stinging the Sixers. New York ended the game with a whopping 23 offensive boards and the Sixers struggled to complete good defensive possessions.

Lowry snagged an offensive rebound for the Sixers and set up an open Buddy Hield three, but Hield (zero points on 0-for-2 shooting) came up short. Batum also missed a couple of inviting three-point tries early in the fourth quarter.

Brunson's elbow jumper over Batum built the Knicks' lead to 98-92. Embiid settled for two straight jump shots and neither went down. And while he was more forceful on the Sixers' next possession, Robinson stopped Embiid on the block.

The contest wasn't over yet, though; Embiid won a jump ball vs. Robinson, Maxey buried a crucial three, and the Sixers found themselves trailing by just three points with two minutes remaining.

The game boiled down to whether the Knicks around Brunson could make the clean three-point looks available. Indeed, they could.

Hart and OG Anunoby canned clutch jumpers down the stretch, including a very tightly contested, tip-your-cap three by Hart, and the Knicks snatched a wild series opener.

“Even in the guts of the game — throw all this stuff in the trash — we had three wide-open threes when we were up three, to go up six,” Nurse said. “Didn’t make one and they made three in a row. There’s a million other things going on out there, and that kind of determines it.

“But I talked at halftime and I was pretty confident we were going to come out and fight. We got some adjustments made. I thought we did an excellent job on offense almost the entire second half. We did a little better job on defense, obviously. We had some really good possessions. And even the possessions they made their last four threes on, I’m not sure I’m taking those possessions back. I think we were doing what we wanted to do there.”

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