Sixers observations

3 observations after Sixers' defense steps up in gritty win at the Garden 

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NEW YORK — The Sixers raised their defensive game and snapped their three-game losing streak Sunday night with a gutsy win over the Knicks.

They earned an exceptionally low-scoring victory at Madison Square Garden, taking a 79-73 decision and improving to 36-28 this season.

Kelly Oubre Jr. posted 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Buddy Hield added 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting and seven boards. Paul Reed had 13 points, seven rebounds and four blocks.

All-Star Knicks guard Jalen Brunson had 19 points on 6-for-22 shooting and eight assists. Donte DiVincenzo recorded 15 points and nine rebounds.

Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure), Tyrese Maxey (concussion), De’Anthony Melton (lumbar spine stress) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise) were all still out.

OG Anunoby, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson were sidelined for the Knicks, who fell to 37-27.  

Maxey ran through individual drills with assistant coaches and player development staff members following the Sixers' practice on Saturday. He traveled with the team to New York and watched the action from the bench. 

“He’s still in the concussion protocol,” Nurse said pregame Sunday, “so again, we’re just trying to move through it. That’s where we are right now.”

The Sixers will face the Knicks again Tuesday night in New York. Here are observations on their win Sunday:

Nice night for Hield off the bench  

The Sixers' offense was a bit less perimeter-oriented than it had been early in Friday’s loss to the Pelicans.

Though the Sixers began very badly again from three-point range — 0 for 9 — they defended solidly, avoided major blunders, and did a better job following Nurse’s game plan. At least in terms of effort and focus, they built on many of the positives from Friday’s second half. 

“We’re just locked into the huddles, locked into the game plan, locked into the film,” Kyle Lowry said. “And we’re communicating. Once you communicate with each other — and you’re open and honest and understand what you have to do — it’s easy.” 

In his 14th game as a Sixer, Hield came off the bench for the first time, checking in alongside Nicolas Batum with 5:37 to go in the first quarter. Shifting Hield to the bench and trying a different look was reasonable. He’d shot just 32.9 percent from the floor over his last seven outings and missed a number of layups lately. 

“He’s had some games where it’s tough for him to squeeze off good shots,” Nurse said before the game. “He’s had some games where he’s gotten enough good shots that he hasn’t made, too. Probably a little bit of us figuring out how to use him, probably a little bit the ebbs and flows of the season. I think there’s a lot of those that he feels pretty good about … they’re just not going in. 

“So hopefully it’ll ebb and flow the right way for him a little bit soon. Still like him, still getting used to what he can do. Still think there’s a lot more he can give us, too.”

While putting Hield on the second unit didn’t suddenly make his shots drop, he chipped in on both ends during his first stint. Hield pump faked behind the arc, drove into the lane, and dished to Reed for a dunk. He then blocked a Bojan Bogdanovic jumper on the Knicks’ last play of the first quarter. 

With those plays under his belt, Hield unsurprisingly scored the first five points of the second period on a three-pointer and fast-break layup. Given both teams’ shooting struggles, every basket felt rather big Sunday. Through 14 minutes and change, the Sixers held a 20-15 lead.

At the end of the evening, Hield's play was among the Sixers' largest bright spots.

“Once I go out there and get quality minutes, help the team win, that’s all that matters,” he said. “Come in and play my role. I know what I’m here to do and I did it tonight. It was fun.

“Nick does a great job and he was putting me in good spots tonight. So it’s not about starting or coming off the bench. … Whatever he wants, we go with, and we trust the decision he makes.”

Sixers show what they can do on defense 

Though the Knicks fared much worse than usual on open jumpers, the Sixers’ defense was also stellar. 

They did excellent work guarding tightly on the perimeter without fouling, which prevented the Knicks from getting into an early drive-and-kick groove and posting easy points. The first free throws for either team were two Brunson foul shots at the 6:29 mark of the second quarter. Brunson scored his first point of the night on that trip to the line. 

The Sixers’ defensive activity and cohesion also translated to plenty of forced turnovers; the Knicks committed 12 giveaways within the first 18 minutes.

“Ball pressure,” Nurse said. “Very good high hands. I think tremendous activity. We were just flying; it seemed like we were everywhere. We were in, we were out, we were over. We were down, we were up. We just kept chasing almost all night.” 

Oubre nabbed three first-half steals and Batum had two. He made an incredible, instinctive feed after one of those steals in the second quarter, flipping a long-range pass behind his head up to Hield. The Sixers eventually scored on an Oubre put-back layup. 

Although the Sixers have predictably had a steep defensive drop-off since Embiid’s injury (and with Melton and Covington out as well), Sunday’s performance highlighted that their healthy players are not inherently hopeless, doomed-to-fail defenders. At their best, they’ve still got versatile, gutsy, rangy and intelligent players on that side of the ball. 

Nurse has no doubt that the shorthanded Sixers have greater defensive ability than they've shown thus far.

“Yes,” he said. “One hundred percent. That’s what we’ve been talking about a lot here lately.”

Fittingly, Lowry took a charge on Brunson with 1.3 seconds left in the second quarter. The Knicks scored a mere 31 points in the first half and trailed by six. 

Sixers close out a gritty W

Brunson was more aggressive and effective to start the third quarter. He dished to DiVincenzo for a layup that knotted the game at 45-all.

However, the Sixers quickly righted the ship. Hield sunk two key threes in the third quarter and the Sixers closed the period well, taking a seven-point lead into the fourth.

A couple of Oubre free throws also helped stabilize the Sixers. Without Embiid and Maxey, it's clearly important to have someone who can regularly get to the rim and draw foul shots. Oubre attempted nine free throws Sunday and was the only Sixers starter to go to the line through three quarters.

Putting opponents away is naturally harder for the star-less Sixers. The Knicks stayed right in the contest and made sure the Sixers knew it. DiVincenzo appeared to object to an Oubre foul with 4:04 left, which led to some tense words and pushing amid a mass of bodies along the baseline. Following an officials' review, DiVincenzo, Isaiah Hartenstein and Reed all received technical fouls.

Reed hit the next shot after the brief delay, canning a corner three to give the Sixers a game-high 10-point edge. On a night where the Sixers' higher-usage players didn't have a ton of jump shooting luck, Reed went 2 for 2 from long range.

Josh Hart drained a crowd-thrilling three to cut the Sixers' lead to 75-71, but Lowry immediately answered with a triple of his own and the Sixers secured a gritty victory.

“Old school, straight East Coast basketball,” Oubre said. “Very defensive game. They were playing great defense as well, but we played a little bit better defense tonight.”

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