Sixers analysis

Sixers show they're hearing Nurse's message and get one back on Knicks 

Nick Nurse wanted to see his team fight and absolutely got what he desired Sunday.

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Nick Nurse sure hasn’t been inclined to sugarcoat lately. 

With the Sixers seeking to end a disheartening three-game skid against the Knicks, the team's head coach presented the facts to his group. 

“The last two games when (the Knicks) came to Philly, they were very, very physical on us,” Nicolas Batum said Sunday night after a defense-dominated, grind-it-out victory at Madison Square Garden. “They kicked our ass twice, really. They were very, very physical. It’s not like sometimes you can miss a game. No, they went at us. … We needed to respond. 

“That was Coach’s message this morning: ‘What are you going to do about it? They came to your house and punched us twice.’ … We had to get a response against a very good team in a tough, tough place to play.”

The Sixers’ win wasn’t beautiful for anyone who enjoys offense. The Knicks’ 73 points were their fewest since 2015 and the Sixers only managed six more. 

Buddy Hield said he was “pretty sure it was 1970-something or 1980-something.” Batum joked that he went “back to my EuroLeague days.”

Ultimately, a Sixers team still down Joel Embiid (left knee meniscus procedure) and Tyrese Maxey (concussion) gave Nurse the essence of what he’s been pushing for. 

“You want them to fight, man,” he said pregame. “That’s all I care about. You think you’re totally outmanned at every position, but you’ve still got to go out there and fight a little harder. That’s all I’m trying to get across. 

“And I’m just trying to show them, ‘This is how you do it.’ It isn’t just, ‘You’re not playing hard enough!’ Well, this is it: You’re not contesting hard enough. We’re not blocking out. We’re not screening well enough. You’ve got to show them concrete examples and hold them accountable to get them to get in there and fight. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

On this night, the Sixers just about did it all defensively. Yes, the Knicks squandered many makable shots, but the Sixers diligently switched, scrambled, navigated around screens, deterred drivers, and rushed ball handlers into bad decisions. 

Their performance also wasn’t devoid of skill and shotmaking. Paul Reed hit both of his long-distance tries and Kyle Lowry nailed a clutch one. Hield moved to the bench and shined, posting 16 points, shooting 4 for 6 from three-point range and embracing the second-unit job Nurse assigned him. 

“I’m trying to get the team to play as good as it can and I’m trying to get each individual guy to play as good as he can,” Nurse said following the Sixers’ practice Saturday. “Sometimes those aren’t 100 percent in alignment. … It isn’t always easy to move people around, limit minutes, limit roles, change roles, expand roles. All those things are kind of happening amid injuries — in and out, in and out, in and out. So it is pretty challenging. 

“There’s times when you can’t be ultra-critical or ultra-down because we’re losing. I don’t like to lose; you guys know that. … But there’s some strides some guys are making, and this has really given us a platform to teach a lot of lessons — a lot of things about competing, winning, making better plays.” 

Those plays Sunday weren’t all rugged battles for rebounds à la Charles Oakley. 

Batum blended fundamentals and flair in the second quarter. After anticipating an Alec Burks pass to Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing, Batum scrapped for the ball, seized it, and flung a deep, Harlem Globetrotters-esque dish behind his head to Hield. The Sixers wound up scoring on the play. 

“I knew it was going to the corner, because they have their two-man game,” Batum said. “And when I was fighting for the ball I saw (Hield) running, and I just … I don’t know why I did that. It worked, though.”

After missing the Sixers’ loss Friday to the Pelicans with left foot soreness, Batum played 31 minutes in New York. 

“I’m good,” he said. “Just got to take care of it. Play through it, take care of it, treatment, whatever. I’ll be fine.”

Oubre seems to expect that Maxey will also be cleared for a return Tuesday night when the Sixers and Knicks meet once more.  

“It’ll be more physical, faster-paced, obviously higher-scoring,” Oubre said of the mini-series finale. “We’ve just got to do a little bit of what we did tonight, but better. And catch their counterattacks, because I’m sure (Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau) is going to yell at them for two, three days and get them fired up. 

“But we’re fired up, too. I don’t even think we played our best tonight. I didn’t in the second half. But at the end of the day, guys stepped up, and we’ll do the same with Tyrese back.”

Though Oubre did not get into an actual fight Tuesday, the game turned especially testy with a little over four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Knicks guard Donte DiVincenzo wasn’t happy about an Oubre foul, the teams exchanged a few tense words and some post-whistle contact, and three players — Reed, Isaiah Hartenstein and DiVincenzo — were assessed technicals. 

Oubre saw the lighter side of the altercation. 

“It’s just frustrations,” he said. “It’s the game of basketball — high energy, we’re in the Garden. But I ain’t got no enemies in this league. 

“All of that stuff’s funny to me. I don’t know why. I just laugh, because nobody’s going to fight. So at the end of the day, I’ll see you Tuesday, bro.”

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