NEW YORK — After a Joel Embiid tip-in put the Philadelphia 76ers up by 14 with under five minutes remaining Sunday afternoon, the superstar center stretched his arms out wide above his head and soaked in the boos from the partisan crowd at Madison Square Garden .
Thanks to dominating performances from Embiid (35 points and eight rebounds) and co-star James Harden (29 points and 13 assists, and never checking out in the second half) Philadelphia celebrated a triumphant return to the NBA’s Christmas Day schedule after a one- year hiatus with a 119-112 victory over the New York Knicks.
« It feels good, » Embiid said. « It’s a blessing to be here. There’s not a lot of teams, a lot of guys, that get these opportunities. »
There’s also not a lot of teams that have a pair of guys like Embiid and Harden at their disposal.
Sunday’s game — the first of five played on the marquee day of the regular-season calendar — was a reminder of the way star power is, quite often, the difference maker in the NBA. And although the Sixers’ season got off to a slow start, Embiid and Harden have begun to find a groove together over the past few weeks, helping the 76ers win their eighth straight game.
After 76ers coach Doc Rivers said before the game that usually one team adjusts well to the game starting at noon and that he « hoped » it would be his, the Knicks dominated the first half from virtually every standpoint, led by Julius Randle scoring 25 of his eventual 35 points on the day.
« You never know how these afternoon games are going to start, » Rivers said afterwards. « I thought their first quarter, they had all the energy, they killed us on the glass the whole first half, I thought they were quicker to everything. »
But, after all of that, the 76ers only trailed by 3 at halftime – thanks, in part, to a halfcourt heave by Shake Milton that banked in off the glass. But as Knicks icons Carmelo Anthony and Bernard King – who remains the record-holder for the most points scored on Christmas Day after scoring 60 against the then-New Jersey Nets in 1984 – sat side-by-side on the baseline opposite Philadelphia’s bench and watched the proceedings, they witnessed Embiid dragging his 76ers back into the game.
« That was the difference, I’m telling you, » Rivers said. « The second half was the second half. But Joel coming out towards the end of the second quarter and being aggressive, I really thought that changed the game. Changed the tenor of the game. »
Embiid scored 11 of his 35 points in the second quarter, helping drag Philadelphia back into contact after trailing by as many as 14 in the first half, before scoring another 15 in the third quarter to again keep the Sixers within striking distance while New York stayed hot offensively.
Then it was Harden’s turn to take over in the fourth, as he and Georges Niang got into a rhythm in a two-man game that led to Harden racking up six points and five assists while Niang hit four triples as the two of them combined to outscore the Knicks by themselves (18-16).
« We found something, » Harden said. « We found something we liked, and then we just tried to get the best available shot.
« Georges got a couple easy looks, and I told him to just take his time. He made one, he made two, and that kind of opened up the game for us. »
Philadelphia’s 1-4 start now feels like a lifetime ago. Since those opening five games, the 76ers have been the NBA’s second-best defensive team, and have its third-best net rating, outscoring teams by more than five points per 100 possessions. And, regardless of who wins the battle between the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference later Sunday in Boston, Philadelphia will be two games back in the loss column of first place in the East, and only one back of second, after winning eight straight games – including sweeping a seven-game homestand.
« We’re getting there, » Harden said, when asked about the team’s confidence level. « But we’ve just got to take it one game at a time, and continue to get better. I think we’re hitting strides and getting better on both ends of the ball, which as the season goes on to get where we want to go, which we’re definitely heading in the right direction, we’re going to be a very difficult team to beat. »
From an injury standpoint, third-year 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey remained out Sunday with the foot fracture that’s kept him out since mid-November, though he could be back soon. For the Knicks, meanwhile, guard Jalen Brunson left the game in the second half after grabbing at his right hip.
New York declined to make Brunson available after the game, and also to say what his injury was.