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Sixers begin their month without James Harden against the scuffling Knicks

A matchup with a division foe kicks off Philadelphia’s Harden-less stretch.

New York Knicks v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The 4-5 Philadelphia 76ers will look to begin another winning streak, this time without James Harden at the helm, when they welcome the 3-4 New York Knicks to town on Friday night at 7 p.m. EST inside Wells Fargo Center. With Joel Embiid missing a second straight game due to a non-COVID illness, Philadelphia saw its three-game winning streak come to an end Wednesday in a 121-111 loss against the Washington Wizards.

For the Sixers, Harden is out with a tendon strain in his right foot. Embiid is listed as questionable, still battling a non-COVID illness, which head coach Doc Rivers has said is the flu. Matisse Thybulle is questionable with a sprained right ankle. De’Anthony Melton, who missed Wednesday’s contest because of lower back stiffness, is not mentioned on the injury report as of 12:30 p.m. EST. As for New York, nobody aside from its G League assignees on two-way contracts, Trevor Keels and Feron Hunt, is on the injury report.

The Knicks enter this matchup having suffered three consecutive losses. According to Cleaning The Glass, they are 20th in net rating (minus-0.6), 16th in offensive rating (112.7) and 15th in defensive rating (112.4). Philadelphia matches that net rating (minus-0.6, 22nd), but counters with a wide disparity in offensive rating (fifth, 116.4) and defensive rating (116.1).

In their loss Wednesday without Embiid to Washington, the Sixers struggled mightily to protect the paint. They’ll need to shore that up, but especially so against the Knicks’ offensive spearheaded by Jalen Brunson, who loves to chisel his way into the paint for finishes and short midrange looks.

I’d expect Melton to assume the brunt of that assignment, which will be a fascinating duel to witness. Brunson is incredibly strong, shifty and crafty. His strength, handle and change of direction make it quite challenging to contain him from getting to his spots. Melton is a superb defender, but he’s looked better as an off-ball playmaker and is slight of frame in general, let alone against Brunson. Whether his size and length advantage, paired with his slippery screen navigation, are enough to slow Brunson could prominently determine how well the Sixers’ defense fares as a whole.

On the other end, if Embiid returns to action, he should enjoy success against Mitchell Robinson. In eight career games against the 24-year-old, Embiid is averaging 25.9 points (57.8 percent true shooting), 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.8 blocks. The shooting hasn’t really been there (43.2 percent from the field), but he’s lived at the line (13.4 free throws per game). His bulk and savvy have exploited Robinson’s lack of discipline and underdeveloped core strength quite frequently. As the Sixers begin navigating life without Harden, expect the offense to flow through the big fella in the post and on face-ups, much like it did prior to Harden’s arrival last season.

A key storyline of this game could be the battle of the benches. Their net rating (minus-6.4 in 133 possessions) doesn’t reflect it, but the Knicks’ reserve unit operates with a level of synergy and ball movement that can pick apart opponents who aren’t prepared for that from a bunch of bench dudes. The Sixers’ bench hasn’t been particularly good to open 2022-23, so it’ll be interesting to monitor how the bench-heavy minutes go for both teams and how Rivers handles his rotations, given Harden’s absence (along with maybe Embiid and/or Thybulle).

Tyrese Maxey’s made strides in his creation and on-ball aptitude this season, and ideally, would anchor any non-Embiid minutes. Philadelphia’s typically tied their minutes together thus far, meaning an adjustment to avoid cratering the offense is likely necessary.

Over the next month, the Sixers face the Atlanta Hawks (three times), Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Memphis Grizzlies during Harden’s presumptive rehab period.

New York represents one of the less daunting bouts on the schedule. But this is a team that, despite its three-game slide, has shown stretches of improved and impressive play. There will be an acclimation stage to life without Harden. Friday is the beginning of that, the first chance to see glimpses of how the Sixers handle missing their superstar point guard.

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