Sixers observations

3 observations after Sixers fall in devastating Game 2 loss to Knicks

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NEW YORK — The Sixers were about as close as possible to stealing a game at Madison Square Garden.

However, Game 2 of their first-round playoff series against the Knicks ultimately concluded in devastating fashion.

Donte DiVincenzo made a go-ahead three-pointer with 13.1 seconds left, Joel Embiid missed a game-tying jumper attempt at the buzzer, and the Sixers dropped a 104-101 game.

Embiid had 34 points and 10 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey posted 35 points and was one rebound short of a triple-double.

The Sixers will host Game 3 of the series Thursday night. Here are observations on their Game 2 defeat:

Questionable Sixers All-Stars bring it 

Embiid (left knee) and Maxey (illness) had both been questionable leading into the game. 

Maxey played his first few minutes like a player feeling swell. To kick off the night’s scoring, he curled up from the right wing and nailed a catch-and-shoot three-pointer. Two more Maxey triples gave the Sixers an immediate 9-0 edge. 

Embiid struck a solid balance between aggression and level-headed decision-making in the first quarter. He kept his composure when double teamed hard in the post, waiting for Kelly Oubre Jr. to cut free and setting him up for a hoop inside. The seven-time All-Star also knocked down two long-distance jumpers and scored 12 first-period points. 

Embiid tallied four offensive rebounds in the first, too. The Sixers as a whole were much improved on the defensive glass after their rebounding woes in Game 1. They were collectively more physical, attentive and committed, preventing the Knicks from gaining a giant edge in the possession game.

At halftime, the Embiid-Maxey duo had 36 points on 13-for-25 shooting, 13 rebounds, eight assists and two turnovers.

Hart the standout role player  

Along with their upgraded rebounding, the Sixers had a better Game 2 in terms of avoiding costly turnovers. 

They conceded zero points off turnovers in the first half. While Kyle Lowry saved them once with a big-time hustle play to sprint back and strip the ball from Josh Hart, the Sixers’ transition defense was generally under less pressure. The Sixers had the NBA’s lowest turnover percentage in the regular season and did well to lean into that strength during Game 2’s first half. 

There was also a bit more to like from their minutes with Embiid on the bench. It helped that Miles McBride and Bojan Bogdanovic combined to start 0 for 5 from the field, but Tobias Harris and Maxey each made several strong plays early in the second quarter as Embiid sat. Soon after Maxey drilled a tough three over Hart late in the shot clock, Harris crashed the offensive glass and tapped the ball to Buddy Hield. He laid the ball in for his first career playoff points. 

Unfortunately for the Sixers, Hart’s shotmaking shined again. 

Hart, who’d come through in the clutch and made a season-high four triples in Game 1, went 4 for 5 from deep in Monday’s first half. He played every second of Game 2 and helped the Knicks cut their deficit to 53-49 after two quarters.

Reasonably enough, the Sixers did not expect Hart to do much damage from three-point range. He made just 31.0 percent of his long-distance shots this regular season on 3.2 attempts per game. 

Hart inflicted considerably less damage on the Sixers after intermission, scoring just two points in the second half.

Late-game devastation for Sixers

Jalen Brunson hit a pull-up jumper early in the third quarter to tie the contest at 55-all.

Embiid then provided some superstar moments to stop New York from surging in front, including a smooth fadeaway jumper and a nimble and-one layup. Lowry was important for the Sixers early in the third, too. He often directed traffic for the Sixers’ offense, sunk a corner three, and played with constant scrappiness on both ends of the floor. 

Though Brunson plugged away and looked for windows to attack all night, Oubre, Nicolas Batum and the Sixers again did good work overall defending the Knicks’ All-Star guard. Brunson, who’d shot 8 for 26 from the floor in Game 1, missed his first four field goals Monday. Oubre impressively mirrored Brunson’s moves and maintained discipline defensively. Embiid was also subtly impactful against Brunson, deterring drives and picking the right spots to shade help defense in his direction.

Offensively, Oubre’s output was insufficient for the Sixers — four points on 2-for-7 shooting. He surely would’ve received more than his 25 minutes if he’d delivered his typical regular-season production on that end. Hield's offensive performance (two points on 1-for-3 shooting) was disappointing, too.

A banked-in Brunson runner lifted the Knicks to their first lead and New York outplayed the Sixers with Embiid out late in the third quarter. Maxey was scoreless in the third, Oubre missed a layup, and Mitchell Robinson beat Paul Reed to a long offensive rebound. The Sixers trailed by five points entering the fourth quarter. 

The team made an encouraging start to the final period. Embiid drained a three-pointer, Maxey converted a runner, and Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau asked for timeout.

Thibodeau got a fantastic response. Robinson snagged an offensive rebound against Embiid, leading to a Bogdanovic three. He then forced Embiid into a turnover with dogged perimeter defense and Sixers head coach Nick Nurse suddenly was compelled to call timeout with his team down 85-78. The Sixers' deficit soon grew to eight points on an and-one McBride jumper.

The Sixers hung around. Lowry canned a key three, Maxey increased his aggression, and the Sixers battled defensively. All of that was essential because Embiid appeared nowhere close to his peak level physically, at times limping and shuffling up and down the court. He came up empty on most of his contested jumper attempts.

Maxey stepped up, to put it mildly. He made a game-tying layup and a go-ahead mid-range jumper. And when Embiid was doubled late in the shot clock, Maxey buried a massive three to put the Sixers up 100-96.

The Sixers didn't have the game sealed yet, though.

Brunson got a three to drop and then, with Nurse begging for a timeout, Maxey lost the ball to Hart on a chaotic, very physical, controversial sequence.

It ended with DiVincenzo draining his game-winning three and the Sixers needing to turn things around in Philadelphia.

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