New York Knicks (26-38) vs. Philadelphia 76ers (23-40)
Poor Knicks fans. I could keep it short and sweet and leave it at that, but how about not? There may have been more folks dressed in orange and blue than red, white, and blue inside Wells Fargo Center for the Friday night affair, so the game was essentially played on a neutral court. This has been the case at the majority of Knicks-Sixers games since the end of Allen Iverson’s heyday, but it’s still remarkable to hear at least half the crowd cheering for the road team and booing as loudly as the home fans. The contest was eerily reminiscent of both prior meetings this season, both of which were decided by one point on buzzer-beaters, with the home team winning each. In their first meeting back on Jan. 11, Joel Embiid and the Sixers erased a 17-point second quarter deficit and a double-digit hole halfway through the fourth quarter. One woman in the same section as me even left early that night, laughing and thoroughly enjoying herself on the way. Then this happened.
Conventional wisdom suggests that a Sixers team playing without Joel Embiid would not erase a nine-point deficit with seven minutes remaining. However, New York, much like Philly in recent years, is great at butt-fumbling on the goal line. Justin Anderson and Carmelo Anthony received double technical fouls, and Anderson’s chippy defense appeared to stifle Anthony in the latter stages of the evening.
Anthony is an amazing talent, but he is part of the problem for the Knicks. Nobody seems to realize they should be utilizing Kristaps Porzingis much more. It’s the same situation in Indiana with Myles Turner, who also frequently takes fewer shots than any other starter. When you’ve got big men like them who move their feet well on the perimeter, protect the paint, and do the dirty work that is boxing out and grabbing boards, you’ve got to reward them on offense. Forget the result: this game-winner from Melo is damaging to the franchise far beyond the loss of ping-pong balls. Forcing Porzingis to sit and watch while Anthony and Derrick Rose run the show is very disheartening. Until the Knicks embrace Kristaps as the true center of their universe, we’re left discussing things like why Ron Baker is getting more minutes than Chasson Randle (besides Monday night versus the Magic).
For Philadelphia, I agree with much of what Quentin Haynes wrote in last week’s article. Dario Saric looks like he could be a star in his own right, with his brilliant passes, ball-handling, seemingly serviceable jump shot, and grit on both ends making him an excellent fit at the 4 alongside Embiid.
Whatever you think about Justin Anderson, and there are still more than a fair share of Sixers fans referring to him as “the guy we traded Noel for,” he was a nice player to take a chance on as a potential 3-and-D wing. So far he has been impressive defensively while showing flashes offensively from the outside and as an off-ball slasher. Anderson has also thrown up some Noel-like bricks, including one that hit off the corner of the backboard versus the Warriors last Monday. If Embiid doesn’t enjoy a healthy and lengthy career, there’s no denying that the Sixers may very well come to regret trading Nerlens. With that being said, if the worst is over for Joel, it’s hard to fault Philly for opting against re-signing Noel for who knows how much money. You never want to kick someone while they’re down, but Joakim Noah was not a worthy investment for New York. Ditto Bismack Biyombo for Orlando, Enes Kanter in OKC, and the list goes on. Noel is much younger and possesses no shortage of potential, especially if he fills out his frame as he gets older and enters his physical and athletic prime. Dallas made out like bandits in that deal, and Noel is a fine fit there (and overall in the modern NBA). Mark Cuban will be sending thank-you cards to the Colangelo’s for years to come.
Nevertheless, re-signing Richaun Holmes is a much cheaper alternative. He isn’t on the same level defensively as Noel, but he’s not lackluster like Jahlil Okafor. Furthermore, Holmes has the same bounce and ability to set screens and dive to the rim as Noel, but with much better shooting range – even extending beyond the arc (11-31 in 2016-17, good for 35.5 percent). He’ll probably cost the Sixers one-fourth of what Noel will sign for as a restricted free agent this summer while providing at least half the on-court value. Spending that cash elsewhere, perhaps for more 3-and-D types or a guard, might be a better option going forward after all. Philly already has several guys not named Embiid or Ben Simmons who could be around for quite some time, whether it be as potential long-term starters (Saric, Robert Covington) or eventual backups (Holmes, T.J. McConnell, Nik Stauskas), so passing on committing big money to Noel this summer affords the franchise more flexibility going forward.
One last thought before getting into the Bucks and Pistons since the Sixers served as doormats in their last two bouts: Timothe Luwawu-Cabbarot is the wildcard for Philly. He has flashed exquisite off-ball slashing instincts and impressive defensive potential, and TLC could eventually be the starting shooting guard for the Sixers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a coach change their mind about subbing a player in as many times as I’ve seen Luwawu summoned back to the bench after checking in and waiting patiently at the scorers table and then held out of the game even after the next timeout. If I’m only allowed to have one gripe about Brett Brown’s work this year, that’s it. It’s time to free TLC.
Detroit Pistons (31-32)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was scalding hot, scoring 26 points on only 11 shot attempts, and the Pistons poured in a season-high 136 points behind four 20-point performers and six double-digit contributors. Detroit’s bench is clicking, but could this have been the game that helped Reggie Jackson get his groove back? He went off again on Monday versus the similarly injury-ravaged Chicago Bulls, and Ish Smith, Tobias Harris, and Aaron Baynes have helped form one of the NBA’s top second units. The Pistons also passed the 31-32 Bulls for seventh in the standings since they currently own the head-to-head tiebreaker (2-1).
There is mounting evidence that this team is fatally flawed, in large part because the tandem of R-Jax and Andre Drummond has struggled this season. It turns out that it’s not so easy to run a top-notch pick-and-roll featuring two players who both drive the lane much better than they shoot. Still, it seems more and more likely that the Pistons will be among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference when the regular season is over. Coach Stan Van Gundy had reportedly been considering a serious change that would send Jackson to the bench and Smith into the starting five, but I think it was ultimately a wise decision to leave the lineup alone and let these guys sink or swim over the final 20-plus games (and through the playoffs). Let’s not forget: Jackson thrived last year in his first full season as a starter. Maybe they can figure some stuff out down the stretch and at least be a tough out in round one of the postseason. One playoff win would technically be progress.
Milwaukee Bucks (29-33)
From far enough away, Tony Snell could’ve been confused with Khris Middleton on Monday night. Snell was on fire, posting 21 points (8-11 FG, 5-7 3Pt), seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals in 31 minutes. This team has a playoff run in them, or at least they very well might. It hasn’t just been one Greek god named Giannis either; essentially every one of their players have stepped up and played above their expectations entering 2016-17. Rookie steal of the draft Malcolm Brogdon cut the Sixers apart with his off-the-ball movement, sneaking backdoor for easy buckets galore. Fellow rookie Thon Maker is frail but fast. He needs to work on boxing out and using his lower body to keep opponents from bullying him down low, but there’s a lot to be excited about in Milwaukee. They may not own the future, but they’ve definitely got a sizable stock in it. It’s not that hard to imagine them as championship contenders in the not-too-distant future.