NEW YORK — We’ll find out shortly if the 76ers can attribute Saturday night’s win to actual late-game road improvements or the scheduling gods.
Tobias Harris scored the go-ahead basket with 28.2 seconds left as the Sixers defeated the New York Knicks, 90-87, at Madison Square Garden to snap their six-game road losing streak. But it came against a Knicks squad tied for the second-worst home record in the NBA at 6-15.
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The Sixers’ (28-16) winning this game wasn’t supposed to come into question. The only unknown was supposed to be their margin of victory. Not only are the Knicks (11-32) the league’s third-worst team, they were without guards R.J. Barrett (right ankle sprain), Dennis Smith Jr. ( oblique strain), and Wayne Ellington (illness).
Yet, New York made the Sixers fight.
North Philly’s Marcus Morris Sr. (team-high 20 points) buried a 12-foot jumper to give the Knicks an 87-86 advantage with 30.9 seconds left.
But Harris responded with a 25-foot three-pointer on an assist from Ben Simmons to put the Sixers up by two points with 28.2 seconds remaining. The Sixers had two options on that in-bounds play. However, Josh Richardson broke wide open, thanks to a screen by Harris and headed toward the basket. Simmons didn’t pass him the ball. After that option broke down, Simmons inbounded to Harris, who stepped out to bury a wide-open three.
“A little bit, a little bit,” Harris responded to being asked if he was surprised he was so wide open. “But, hey, it is what it is.”
After a timeout, the Knicks’ Julius Randle turned the ball over with 7.4 seconds left near the Sixers bench while being trapped by Harris and Simmons. Furkan Korkmaz gave the Sixers a three-point cushion, making 1 of 2 foul shots at the 4.2-second mark.
The Sixers escaped with the win after Morris’ desperation three-pointer hit the rim at the buzzer.
“I think our defense fueled us throughout the game,” said Harris, whose squad held the Knicks to five fast-break points. “We kept them to 87 points. So we did a good job defensively getting our stops and get out in transition.”
Philly is now 8-14 on the road heading into Monday’s Martin Luther King Day matinee (3 p.m.) in Brooklyn against the Nets. The Sixers will cap their three-game road trip on Wednesday night in Toronto against the Raptors.
The Sixers will have to show improvement offensively in the open court to come out victorious in those games.
“I felt that we left money on the table,” coach Brett Brown said. "We complicate stuff. It’s quite simple. You dribble until somebody stops you. If they don’t stop you, you dunk. If they do, you pass.
“We are making up stuff in early offense and leaving stuff on the table.”
Brown said Simmons is a whole different conversation with how dynamic he is. He called the point guard a tank going 100 miles a hour, looking to dunk everything.
“We love that,” the coach said. “He odd-numbered breaks, 3-2, 2-1, 4-3; we left too much money on the table.”
Simmons finished with game-highs of 21 points and eight assists to go with seven rebounds and two steals. Josh Richardson added 18 points, but committed seven turnovers. Reserve Furkan Korkmaz had another strong offensive game with 17 points, while Harris scored 15 points to go with eight rebounds.
Two-way player Norvel Pelle rejoined the team, finishing with two blocks in 15 minutes, 9 seconds of action. The reserve center has only one day left toward the maximum number of days the Sixers are allowed to have him on the roster on his two-way deal. The plan was to sign him to the 15-man roster or release him after his 45 days.
Sixers center Al Horford hurt his left hand while being fouled by Reggie Bullock and falling hard on it with 6 minutes, 31 seconds left in the third quarter. During a timeout, Horford rocked back and forth on the bench, seemingly in pain. His hand was looked at as he walked on the court following the timeout. He remained in the game for a little while before his scheduled sub-out. Horford’s hand was wrapped in what appeared to be a compression towel while out of the game. He returned to the game with 7:59 to play.
“We will see where we are at tomorrow,” Horford said. “It’s pretty sore right now. I am glad I was able to stay in the game and give the team whatever I could.”
Horford finished with four points on 2-for-7 shooting to go with seven rebounds one night after scoring 20 points against the Chicago Bulls.
“It was definitely uncomfortable,” he said of his hand. “I have played ... in this game you always play through injuries. I just want to make sure I did what I could. We will see where I am at tomorrow and hopefully get to go for Monday.”
Saturday marked his sixth game as a starting center due to Joel Embiid being sidelined after tearing a ligament in his left ring finger.
Horford’s locker-room presence is what Brown said he likes most about the 33-year-old’s game.
“He’s just like a man,” the coach said. “He says what he thinks. I think what he thinks is most time on point, to the point, real. And there’s a leadership side of him that sort of goes rightly so unnoticed by everybody that doesn’t pop up on a stat sheet.”
With the win, the Sixers are in sixth place in the East and are 2 1/2 games in back of second-place Miami. They have 38 games remaining in the regular season to try to get a desired top 2 seed to secure home-court advantage through the first two round of the playoffs.
Brown said developing a defensive identity on the road is the next step to creating separation from teams in the standings.
“We live in two worlds, where we are 20-2 at home and [8-14] on the road,” Brown said. "You can’t always blame it on you have Joel or you don’t. So for me, there’s a discipline that we have to show to a knowledge base of how we are guarding.
“It’s not go play hard. It’s not that for me.”
He wants the Sixers to be more disciplined when it comes to the game plan. He thinks with a physical discipline and toughness, that bleeds into a mental toughness.
“You are not doing anything that matters if you can’t win on the road,” Brown said.