Skip to Content

New York’s Second Unit Chased The 76ers Into The Pain Cave

Deuce McBride of the New York Knicks rises up to shoot over Tyrese Maxey of the Philadelphia 76ers.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Philadelphia 76ers dominated the first quarter of Saturday's Game 1 against the New York Knicks, which is to say that Joel Embiid dominated it. As least as much as the 15 points he scored in the period, the threat he posed at the other end of the floor accounted for the nine-point lead the Sixers took into the second quarter: The Knicks were afraid to challenge him around the basket.

Donte DiVincenzo, usually so fearless attacking the hoop, bonked a hilariously high-arcing floater off the rim from two steps outside of the restricted area. Isaiah Hartenstein, virtually alone in the lane but with Embiid disentangling himself from a pile of bodies against the basket stanchion, flipped up the silliest little Antawn Jamison flip-shot from five feet without even considering going to the basket, and shorted it. I'm honestly not sure Embiid ever so much as extended his arms above his head on any of the passive mid-range shots the Knicks bricked in the period; I'm virtually certain he never actually jumped to contest anything. Just the threat of him was enough to condition everything the Knicks did before they even did it.

"Joel Embiid looks like a different player," ESPN's Doris Burke gushed at one point in the quarter, and was correct in two senses. First, that Embiid, when Philadelphia had the ball, looked a far cry from the tentative, easily exhausted, jump-shooting version of himself he'd shown in the handful of games since he'd returned from a meniscus injury suffered in January. And second, that when the Knicks had the ball, he evidently looked, to them, like Godzilla, a different player whom he is not.

Even with Embiid heading to the bench to start the second, the Knicks didn't exactly transform into hoop-attacking madmen. They just turned up the tempo, led by Deuce McBride and Bojan Bogdanovic. Here I don't mean that they just, like, ran fast or that they played hard, though of course they did do those things. I mean that the Knicks' second unit turned up the pace at which game events happened, to preposterous levels. Bogdanovic sprinted up in transition and banked in a ridiculous leaning three-pointer from the top of the key; if not for the score widget in the corner of the screen, you'd have thought he'd been trying to beat the fourth-quarter buzzer. With all five Sixers having run back in transition after a miss, McBride shot another above-the-break three immediately on the catch, with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. Bogdanovic, darting out beyond the arc, received a kick-out pass from McBride all but touch-passed the ball directly to the hoop for another three; it looked less like a basketball move than like a volleyball set.

At the other end of the floor, the Knicks extended their defense out to the halfcourt line, on the same theme of making things happen faster, of driving game events up to a tempo faster than the guests could dance. The Sixers didn't know how to handle it. Tobias Harris kept trying to slow things down, to no avail; Tyrese Maxey accepted the new tempo as a challenge, as though the game would be decided by who ran the fastest, and left his own teammates in the dust—he went minus-21 for the quarter. The Knicks kept swarming. McBride sprinted into a layup and missed, and Mitchell Robinson missed the tip-in; a minute later, Hart sprinted into a layup and missed, but this time Robinson punched it down with two hands. The Sixers looked like their alarm-clock had gone off 20 minutes too early and too close to their faces.

Embiid checked back in, but with no interest in regaining the interior dominance he'd won in the first quarter. He pumped up a soft 18-footer, and missed it. He dithered around the free-throw line, lost the ball, and double-dribbled. Bogdanovic, playing now at thrash-metal velocities, caught-and-shot a three from the corner without ever bringing the ball below his collarbones; it missed, but OG Anunoby soared above everybody and ripped away the offensive rebound; Jalen Brunson turned it into a smooth turnaround jumper for two. Bogdanovic went up to rebound a Kelly Oubre Jr. miss and had passed the ball to Brunson before he even returned to the ground.

Bogdanovic's and McBride's shared commitment to making everything happen a beat faster than it should was fanatical. Driving past Oubre, Bogdanovic fired a hard kick-out pass to Anunoby, who was standing approximately six inches from him; Anunoby missed a three, Robinson rebounded and passed out to McBride, and McBride instantly hucked up a side-stepping three-pointer, and splashed it. A long defensive rebound fell to Bogdanovic around New York's three-point line, and in one motion he whipped a hit-ahead pass forward to—who else?—McBride, three steps past everybody, for the slam. It was like somebody had released a pair of angry wolverines onto the court.

The game had gone crazy now. Embiid, who'd picked up his dribble around the free-throw line without a plan, pivoted, stepped through, and tossed himself an off-the-backboard alley-oop lob, one of the most outrageous athletic displays of the season—but his knee wobbled on the landing and he crumpled to the floor; the Knicks, in full Hyena Mode now, raced ahead for a dunk at the other end. Embiid checked out with 2:37 left in the quarter and the Knicks now ahead by five, 51-46; the Sixers didn't score again before halftime, though Kyle Lowry, evidently driven insane by the pace, did pump up a hotly contested 25-footer with eight seconds on the shot-clock, and airball it.

The Knicks won the quarter by 21 points, 33-12; Bogdanovic and McBride, not coincidentally, played the entire thing. That wasn't the end of the game, of course: The third quarter repeated the pattern of the first, with Embiid—hobbling now—warping all of New York's scoring efforts and the Sixers outscoring the Knicks by 15; and the fourth broadly repeated the pattern of the second, with New York's second unit, this time anchored by Josh Hart and Mitch Robinson, eating up offensive rebounds and making six of nine threes to secure the home win.

The second quarter wasn't the definitive stretch of the game (well, pending whatever might still be found out about the state of Embiid's knee). I'm not sure any part of what worked in it is more than faintly replicable for the Knicks; in any case it's pretty unlikely either team's reserves will decide the series. But the Knicks needed the game's patterns to change, and a couple of absolute madmen made it happen.

Already a user?Log in

Welcome to Defector!

Sign up to read another couple free blogs.

Or, click here to subscribe!

If you liked this blog, please share it! Your referrals help Defector reach new readers, and those new readers always get a few free blogs before encountering our paywall.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter