For almost three quarters, it seemed like the Knicks were on the way to a statement win over an NBA title contender on national television. Instead, the offense went cold and their star point guard Jalen Brunson left with an injury leading to the Knicks falling to the 76ers 119-112 on Sunday afternoon.
With three minutes left in the third quarter, New York held a seven-point lead over Philadelphia, and it seemed possible that the Knicks would pull off an upset despite Joel Embiid and James Harden combining for 64 points on 50% shooting.
RJ Barrett continued to look like a young player gaining confidence, attacking the basket, and finding his offensive rhythm. Even though his shot faltered in the fourth quarter, he finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists.
Julius Randle paced New York with 35 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and two steals on 12-of-24 from the field. Brunson added 23 points, 11 assists, and three rebounds before leaving with an injury, and the trio helped put the Knicks in a position to pull out a key win for much of the game.
Ultimately, it was not to be.
Philadelphia shifted into a zone late in the game and, much as it has a few times already this season, the decision seemed to befuddle the New York offense. Philadelphia kept clicking on offense, running out to a 16-2 run to start the period. They would never look bad.
The issues against the zone are a real problem for a New York team that doesn’t have enough consistent shooting. They shot just 6-22 in the fourth quarter and watched as Philadelphia continued to knock down shots from deep, including four fourth-quarter threes from bench forward Goerges Niang.
To make matters worse for New York, point guard Jalen Brunson left the game in the fourth quarter after trying to play through a hip injury that saw him hobbling up and down the court on a few late possessions. After the game head coach Tom Thibodeau mentioned that Brunson was getting looked at but that he didn’t know any more about his star’s status.
The Knicks were also worried about losing Brunson a little over a week ago when he injured his ankle, but the point guard has been able to power through and remain on the court. With another injury tacked on, it’s possible that the team decides to rest their new franchise player, hoping to keep him healthy for the long haul.
The injury to Brunson and issues against the zone were two concerns for New York on Sunday, but the other biggest issues to monitor were the continued confusing usage of Immanuel Quickley and the poor performance of Isaiah Hartenstein.
Before Brunson left with an injury, Quickley had played only 17 minutes. Most of those were with the bench unit features Hartenstein, Jericho Sims, and Miles McBride. Considering Quickley had 20 points on 70% shooting when he filled in for Quentin Grimes as a starter on Wednesday, and had 22 points in 23 minutes against the Pacers earlier in the week, it’s a bit baffling why he isn’t getting more minutes with the starters. Especially with the team struggling to shoot against a zone.
It was also the second straight poor performance for Hartenstein, who had two points and one rebound in 15 minutes off of the bench while posting a -15 plus/minus. With Mitchell Robinson picking up three fouls early in the first half, Hartenstein was used to help guard Embiid but proved to be completely overmatched and seems to be a poor fit with New York’s new team identity.
When Obi Toppin returns, it’s easy to see a scenario where the Knicks would be better off with him taking the vast majority of Hartenstein’s minutes.
However, at the end of the day, the Knicks played three quarters of tremendous basketball against a legitimate title contender. However, New York isn’t headlined by a future Hall of Famer like the 76ers, Nets, Bucks, and Celtics. They need to play consistently solid team basketball so that the sum of parts can be greater than one elite individual.
They weren’t able to do that for a full four quarters on Sunday, and they likely won’t be able to do it enough to raise a trophy at the end of the year, but this team is finding their stride and proving to be a real tough out for anybody.