On paper, the Knicks had almost everything going for them — a raucous Christmas Day crowd in the friendly confines of Madison Square Garden, a 76ers team that practically limped into New York after losing nine of its previous 10, and Enes Kanter, who — despite entering the game being overshadowed by a certain other big man — was about to have one of the best games of his career.
And it still wasn’t enough.
Despite Kanter’s 31 points and 22 rebounds, the Knicks all but gave away every chance that was lobbed at them in a 105-98 loss to the 76ers in the first of the NBA’s five marquee match ups Monday.
They fell to 15-6 at home, thanks to a flurry of missed free throws, missed field-goal attempts and key turnovers down the stretch.
Kristaps Porzingis, in his highly anticipated duel with Joel Embiid, had 22 points and five blocked shots but shot 6-for-19 from the field and 9-for-14 from the free-throw line. Embiid led the 76ers (15-18) with 25 points and 16 rebounds.
Courtney Lee had 20 points for the Knicks (17-16), who shot 18-for-28 from the free-throw line and have lost their last five Christmas Day games.
What’s more, things are about to get much, much harder. They are 2-10 on the road and now will play 16 of their next 20 away from the Garden.
“It’s a challenge for the team,” coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We’ve been in and out on the road and haven’t had a lot of success. If we’re out there seven to nine days and guys can get in a groove on the road, it’s possible [to turn it around]. Tim [Hardaway Jr.] will probably be back during some part of that stretch, and that gives us another guy out there.”
The Knicks had small leads in the first half but spent the majority of the third quarter and beyond playing catch-up. They tied the score at 89 with 5:20 left in the fourth quarter on Porzingis’ three-point play, but the 76ers scored the next seven before Kanter’s dunk got the Knicks to within 96-91 with 3:14 to go.
But Embiid’s three-pointer gave the 76ers a 101-93 lead with 2:25 remaining and Ben Simmons added a breakaway dunk after stealing a pass by Porzingis. That made it 103-95 with 1:06 left and essentially finished the Knicks.
“It’s a tough one because I real ly wanted to win this game,” Porzingis said. “I thought we did good defensively. I had five blocks. But offensively, we just weren’t playing at our level. We know we can play. It’s a tough one, and we know we have to swallow it and keep going and have a better performance next game.”
Embiid was a game-time decision after missing six of the previous eight games with an injured back, and the 76ers looked like a team reborn with him in the starting lineup. He played a team-high 34 minutes, 28 seconds.
“He’s a big key for them,” Hornacek said. “Against a team like that, with their front line, even [Robert] Covington at the two spot is 6-7.” And point guard Simmons is 6-10.
It doesn’t help that the hill only gets steeper from here.
“It’s going to be very hard to win on the road,” said Kanter, who had 11 offensive rebounds. “I think we just need the same energy on the road, as obviously when we play at home, the whole crowd . . . they give us so much energy. We need to have the same energy on the bench on the road.”