Mike Sielski: The Sixers-Knicks maddening ending to Game 2 is exactly what playoff basketball should be

Mike Sielski, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Basketball

NEW YORK — The ending — the chaos and collisions and the stones that it took Donte DiVincenzo to take that second three-point shot and make it — is what everyone will remember, but really, it’s only the beginning. Lawdy, finally, the 76ers and New York Knicks are starting to hate each other. Look at what we’ve been missing.

Joel Embiid can play the heel, and Knicks fans can chant their demands that someone agree to bear Embiid’s children — and do so in a quite vulgar manner, I might add — and Kyle Lowry can play I’m-not-touching-you with Josh Hart like the two of them are brothers bent on annoying each other, and these teams can bump and shove and puff their chests and complain about jagged-edge basketball and the referees’ calls and everything else under the sun, to which the only appropriate response is … Yes. More, please, dear sirs. Give me more.

It doesn’t matter if you care who wins this series, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t. It doesn’t matter if you gasp slightly every time Embiid hits the deck, and it doesn’t matter if you scream CALL THE FOUL every time Jalen Brunson misses a runner in the lane. This is the good stuff. This is a series for grown a— men, and right now, the Knicks have more of them. They won Game 2 on Monday night here, 104-101. They’re up two games to none, but they have accomplished only what a team with home-court advantage is supposed to accomplish: win on that home court. This ain’t over, not yet.

This is what playoff basketball is supposed to be, and this is what it has not been between these franchises, these cities and regions, for 35 years. Philadelphia and New York, missing each other every spring since 1989? That’s not right, and damn if the Sixers and Knicks don’t look like they’re making up for lost time. It was always going to be this way, with Tom Thibodeau and Nick Nurse going head to head and clenched fist to clenched fist, with four Jay Wright-prepped dudes from Villanova between the two teams. But the predictable nature of the series doesn’t make it any less compelling. It makes it dramatic as hell.

Those closing minutes, when an NBA postseason game transformed into a scrum in front of an NHL goaltender, the Sixers desperate to move the ball and draw a foul — the Knicks desperate to force a turnover, the officials not at all desperate to call a foul, bodies flying, bodies on the floor, bodies everywhere, and suddenly the ball in DiVincenzo’s hands at the top of the key, and the Sixers powerless to stop him from swishing the shot that may have changed this series. All of it was merely the natural culmination of everything that had happened before it, all of it ugly and beautiful and exhilarating and, for the Sixers, oh-so maddening.

Yes, it was like that all night. One minute, Embiid tumbles to the court like a long lounge chair, mechanically, in sections. The next minute, he’s flashing better footwork than Rudolf Nureyev, catching a pass on the right elbow, pirouetting away from a defender, and swishing a 14-foot fadeaway. One minute, Madison Square Garden is going bonkers for an old John Starks highlight from the early 1990s, when the Knicks practiced Pat Riley’s brutal brand of kill-or-be-killed basketball. The next minute, those same fans are losing their minds because the officials saw a Hart flop for what it was.


Yeah, Hart would be losing his mind, too. The next foul he acknowledges committing will be his first. He was a favorite around here when he was at Villanova, smart and skilled and tough in helping the Wildcats win that 2016 national title, but now he’s drilling one three pointer after another and screwing his face into a scowl after every whistle, and it’s all great because he’s becoming the kind of benevolent villain that makes sports rivalries a blast.

He’s also an example of the disparate ways that each team is trying to win this series. The Knicks are getting more meaningful contributions from more players on their roster. Brunson missed 39 of his first 55 attempts from the field through Games 1 and 2, but Hart, DiVincenzo, Bojan Bogdanovic, Miles McBride, and Isaiah Hartenstein have more than made up for Brunson’s bad shooting. New York has a measure of balance that the Sixers, for all the talk of their deeper bench, right now don’t. They have Embiid, who is playing on a left knee that is tender and unreliable at best, and they have Maxey, who missed Monday’s shootaround because he was sick. They got remarkable performances from both of them Monday — 34 points and 10 rebounds from Embiid, 35 points and 10 assists and a handful of clutch buckets from Maxey. Good thing. They’re getting nothing from Buddy Hield, not enough from Tobias Harris, and just decent defense from Kelly Oubre Jr.

They need more from those supporting actors. Sure, Embiid gets two days to rest before tipoff Thursday night, but the Sixers can’t keep asking so much from their two stars, can they? It was barely enough to get them by Monday. You want a couple of symbolic sequences from the first two games? There was Maxey early in the fourth quarter, grabbing a defensive rebound only to have McBride rip it out of his hands and drop in a layup. Minutes later, there was Maxey swishing a pull up jumper with 2 minutes, 22 seconds left in regulation to give the Sixers their first lead of the fourth quarter, then nailing a 28-foot three to stretch the lead to four, all of just a prelude to the Knicks’ brief and furious comeback in the final seconds, to DiVincenzo’s shot, an eruption of sound inside Madison Square Garden, and a bunch of broken hearts 90 miles to the south.

Parry, riposte? Nope. Forget the refinement. Punch. Counterpunch. Bring on Game 3. The Sixers had better bring their best.


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