The Philadelphia 76ers’ first three games after the All-Star break couldn’t have gone much better, especially when considering their circumstances. Despite missing Joel Embiid most of the time (first due to contract tracing protocols, and now due to a bone bruise) and only getting Ben Simmons back on Sunday, they’ve won every game by at least 22 points.
The Sixers’ improved bench play has been key to their success. Tony Bradley has provided some good minutes behind Dwight Howard, with solid screening, finishing and rim protection. Furkan Korkmaz has heated up over the last eight games (averaging 14.1 points with 48 percent three-point shooting), Mike Scott’s play has improved, and Matisse Thybulle has been playing typically stellar defense with refined cutting and hot shooting on offense. With no Embiid and a challenging stretch of games approaching at the end of March and into April, the bench will need to keep rolling.
The Sixers haven’t faced the Knicks since their matchup on December 26, when the Sixers won comfortably in Madison Square Garden, 109-89. It goes without saying, though, that any matchup is completely different when Joel Embiid is out. The Knicks will also be missing a few players for Tuesday’s game, with Derrick Rose (healthy and safety protocols), Mitchell Robinson (right hand surgery — Nerlens Noel has been starting in his place), Austin Rivers (personal reasons), and Elfrid Payton (right hamstring strain) all listed as out.
The Knicks have taken a clear step forward with Tom Thibodeau as their new head coach this season. They’re up to a fairly competitive 7th place in the Eastern Conference at 20-20, largely thanks to their stout defense. They rank 6th in defensive rating, while their offense ranks just 23rd. Beyond their honed defensive intensity and execution, some of their key players developing has helped fuel their improvement.
Julius Randle has played like a worthy All-Star with impressive career-highs of 23.2 points, 11 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game with better three-point shooting (41.5 percent on 4.6 attempts) and overall efficiency (58.4 true shooting). New York’s second-best player, RJ Barrett, has made noticeable improvements and honed his driving and shooting, with career-highs of 17.2 points per game and a 53.2 true shooting percentage to show for it. Rookie Immanuel Quickley has been a bright spot with his scoring and silky floater game. That said, the Knicks still don’t have enough creation or shooting (they take even fewer threes than the Sixers, ranking 29th in attempts per game) outside of their leading forwards in Randle and Barrett to lift up their offense enough.
Barrett was hounded by Ben Simmons in December and shot a measly 2-of-15 from the floor. Whether Simmons handles Barrett again or gets more time matched up against Randle will be the key defensive matchup to follow for the Sixers. Tobias Harris should also be tasked with helping out against the Knicks’ leading scorers with his size and strength.
One advantage the Sixers have heading into this game is that the Knicks will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back, having lost 117-112 to the Brooklyn Nets on Monday. With Simmons back and the bench playing well, too, this could be a decent opportunity for Philly to pick up another win at home before their schedule gets tougher over the next few weeks. The Sixers will face a much bigger test right away, as they complete a back-to-back of their own against the Milwaukee Bucks this Wednesday.
Who: New York Knicks vs. Philadelphia 76ers
When: 8:00 pm ET, Tuesday, March 16th
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic