The 76ers have played three straight games against teams that entered Thursday with 17 wins, and while now depleted by injury, they were still facing three of the bottom-feeders in the Eastern Conference.
If the Sixers are going to hold the fort while All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are out, they will have to show a better killer instinct.
On Thursday they had enough to put away one of those 17-win teams, earning a 115-106 win over the New York Knicks at the Wells Fargo Center. Yet they probably provided much more suspense than they should have, especially since the Sixers owned a 20-point lead late in the second quarter.
The Sixers also released what seems to be optimistic news on Embiid after his shoulder injury in the 108-94 loss Wednesday at Cleveland.
Even though it wasn’t an artistic win, the Sixers will take it after the debacle in Cleveland.
The Sixers began the week by taking a 21-point lead then trailing 92-91 after three quarters to another 17-win team, Atlanta. The Sixers eventually pulled away for a 129-112 victory.
The Knicks, kept hanging around and got within 107-102 when Julius Randle hit one of two free throws with 2 minutes, 8 seconds left
Tobias Harris, who scored 34 points, then hit a three, making it 110-102 with 1:52 remaining, Shake Milton hit a three to make it 113-102, and finally the Sixers had put away the Knicks.
“With those two out we had to find our identity of how we’re going to play,” Harris said, referring to Simmons and Embiid.
That the Knicks made the Sixers sweat shouldn’t be surprising. Even though the Sixers earned a 4-0 season sweep, the first three wins came by a total of 14 points.
There is no question that Harris has to be the Sixers’ go-to player in the absence of his two All-Star teammates. He got the Sixers going by scoring their first nine points and had 23 by halftime, when the Sixers had a seemingly comfortable 61-46 advantage.
The Sixers (37-23) have plenty of questions, but one of them shouldn’t be Harris’ production.
He was coming off an 11-point, 4-for-13 shooting performance against Cleveland and was determined to have a turnaround effort.
A big question will be who else will be a consistent scorer in the absence of Embiid and Simmons.
Milton has stepped up with his recent chance. Starting his third straight game at point guard, Milton scored 19 points and now has scored 63 points in his last four outings. Al Horford added 15 points and nine assists for the Sixers.
Milton was 6-for-7 from the field, and hit all five of his three-pointers.
“I didn’t know he was 5-for-5 [from three], and if I knew that I probably would have tried to get him a couple of more shots.” Harris said, laughing.
Milton, whose playing time has been up and down this season, got a strong endorsement from coach Brett Brown.
“The statistics, making shots, and being our point guard, at this stage you would have to say if everybody is looking for a tournament, he’s winning it,” Brown said.
New York was led by Randle, who scored 30.
After the Cleveland loss, Josh Richardson questioned the Sixers’ heart. The heart was there against the Knicks, but it always seems to appear on their home court.
The Sixers are an NBA-best 28-2 at home. They haven’t discovered the winning formula on the road, where they are 9-21. The Cleveland loss was their seventh straight on the road.
Now the Sixers will hit the road for four straight games, beginning Sunday at the Los Angeles Clippers.