NEW YORK – The 76ers overcame load management, injuries, and G-League assignments Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
All three of those things contributed to the Sixers being undermanned, especially at center, in their 101-95 victory over the New York Knicks.
The Sixers (13-6) battled back from a 16-point first-half deficit to post their second win in their last eight road games. The Knicks (4-15), meanwhile, have lost five straight games and eight of their last 10 overall.
Joel Embiid had a big hand in the outcome. The Sixers center had game-highs of 27 points and 17 rebounds to go with three blocks for his team-leading 11th double-double of the season. James Ennis III came off the bench to make 3 of 4 three-pointers en route to a season-high 20 points. He went 9-for-9 from the foul line and shot 4-for-5 overall. Eighteen of his points came after intermission.
“I felt there was a lot of unselfish play,” he said of his teammates finding him on the perimeter. “They were doubling off the bounce, whoever got in the post and their willing kick-outs, swing-swing, extra pass, Trey [Burke] found me, Mike [Scott] found me. So there was a lot of unselfish play tonight. I am glad that we won.”
Tobias Harris (19 points) and Ben Simmons (15 points, game-high eight assists) also scored in double figures. Meanwhile, Norvel Pelle had a game-high four blocks in his first NBA game. On the downside, Mike Scott failed to score a point for the second consecutive game. The reserve power forward shot 0-for-4 after going 0-for-7 on Wednesday against Sacramento.
The Sixers were without two starters and backup center Friday.
Power forward Al Horford missed the game due to rest. Shooting guard Josh Richardson was sidelined with right hamstring tightness. Meanwhile, reserve center Kyle O’Quinn missed his third consecutive game with a left calf strain.
So what does this victory say about the Sixers?
“It says we handled our job,” Harris said. “We did our job, what we were supposed to do, which was come here and be able to still impose our will and get a victory. It means the second half we were able to wake up and get something going and get that momentum and that was really it.”
As a result of the shorthanded situation, Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle joined Embiid, Harris, and Simmons in the starting lineup.
The Sixers trailed 51-35 after Julius Randle’s foul shots with 2 minutes, 36 seconds left in the half. The Knicks took a 12-point cushion into the locker room after Philly closed out the half with a 4-0 run.
They Sixers took a 70-68 lead into the final quarter after outscoring New York, 31-17, in the third. They never trailed the entire fourth quarter with Ennis (10 fourth-quarter points) and Embiid (nine) leading the way.
The Knicks pulled within a point (81-80) on a pair of Randle foul shots with 5:46 left. However, Ennis was fouled while attempting a three-pointer 42 seconds later. He made all three foul shots to give the Sixers their 84-80 cushion.
The Knicks pulled within one point (84-83), again, 1:02 later. Ennis responded with a pair of foul shots to give them a three-point advantage.
Then after New York knotted the score at 87 with 2:51. Embiid answered with a three-point play to give them the lead for good (90-87).
This was the first full game that Richardson missed with the hamstring tightness, which forced him to miss the second half of Wednesday’s victory.
Richardson sat out the second half with right hamstring tightness. That was Richardson’s third game back after missing two games (San Antonio Spurs on Friday and New York Knicks on Nov. 20) with right hip flexor tightness.
He said Friday that he hopes the two injuries aren’t related.
“I feel OK,” Richardson said. “It is one of those things you got to be smart about. You can’t come back too fast from it or it could get worse. I am just trying to take my time and take my heart out of the recovery, because I want to be out with my guys. I am trying to more so use my brain.”
With Horford and O’Quinn out, the Sixers were undermanned in the post. O’Quinn is listed as the backup center, but Horford usually slides to the center spot when starter Embiid doesn’t play or comes out of the game.
Jonah Bolden, another reserve center, is assigned to the Sixers’ G League affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats. That left two-way player Pelle and Embiid as the only available centers.
The Sixers would have benefited from playing Horford. However, they aspire to win a championship. As a result, their goal is to keep the 33-year-old fresh and healthy for the long haul rather than play him every game.
“There is no more blatant example of sort of what’s going on than that,” coach Brett Brown said of Horford missing the game."It has been discussed with Al, with our sports science people. And this isn’t something that you just kind of make up. It has been planned for a while, and here it is."
Asked if he was concerned about O’Quinn’s calf strain in the long term, Brown started to say no.
“I sort of go with the advice of the medical people,” he said, “and that has not been brought to my attention.”
This marked the second time that Horford missed the first game when the Sixers are playing on back-to-back nights. He was held out of the Nov. 12 home game against Cleveland. Embiid rested in the next night’s road game versus Orlando.
Brown said it’s too early to determine Embiid’s status for Saturday’s home game against Indiana.
Asked what will go into deciding whether he plays, Brown said: “I’ll leave that with the sports science people.”
Embiid left the Sixers locker room without talking to the media following the game. While the Sixers want to keep his status in house, one has to assume that he probably won’t play Saturday. He logged a 35 minutes, 27 seconds in what was the Sixers’ sixth game in nine days. Plus, they host Utah on Monday. So one might argue a day of rest on Saturday would benefit Embiid, who has health and conditioning issues.