GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The NBA put the promising 76ers on the guest list for its Christmas card of games for the first time since 2001, lining them up against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. And then “The Process” finally began making progress after averaging 63 losses in the previous four seasons.
Philadelphia began 13-9. Now the record is 14-18 after five straight losses and nine in the last 10 games. Three defeats in the streak came without a player who symbolized the tanking/rebuilding and also nicknamed himself “The Process.” Joel Embiid returned from lower back tightness to play 23 minutes Saturday at Toronto, but the 7-foot center isn’t fully recovered and is questionable for Monday.
So where exactly are the 76ers when it comes to “The Process” (their rebuild)?
“I think a lot of it depends on Embiid’s health,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said after Sunday’s practice at the MSG Training Center. “When he plays, they’re a pretty good team.”
The Knicks are, too — at least at home, where they’re 15-5. They’re ready to spend Christmas with the 76ers and bring a 17-15 overall record into the game. It will be the Knicks’ league-leading 52nd Christmas Day game and eighth in nine years.
So where exactly are the Knicks in the first season of their version of “The Process,” post-Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson? Well, they’re not tanking. They’ve been a bit ahead of schedule, but in Hornacek’s eyes, they’re still not nearly prime title contenders.
“We may be a little ahead,” he said. “We still have a lot of things that we need to get better at . . . We’re quite a ways from trying to get to the Clevelands and the Golden States and the way Boston has played this year.
“So again, it’s a work in process for all of us. I think it’ll be a fun game [Monday].”
Embiid’s first two seasons weren’t much fun. The third overall pick in the 2014 draft sat out both because of a foot injury. He played only 31 games last season before a knee injury sidelined him. Now he’s averaging 23.7 points, 10.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 blocks.
“As a player, he’s obviously one of the best big men in the league,” Knicks center Enes Kanter said. “I respect the guy a lot because I don’t really see nobody just hurt for three or four years and then coming back and playing at the level he’s playing right now.”
Philadelphia has another matchup problem for opponents: a 6-10 point guard. After missing last season with a foot injury, rookie Ben Simmons is averaging 17.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 2.0 steals. Knicks point guards Jarrett Jack and Frank Ntilikina are 6-3 and 6-5, respectively.
“It’s very, very challenging when they post him up,” Ntilikina said. “We’ll do our best and compete.”
The French rookie is excited about his first NBA Christmas game.
“Back in France, I was watching all the Christmas games all the years,” Ntilikina said. “So now being a part of it and being able to play it, it means a lot to me.”
The preseason expectations were low for Ntilikina’s Knicks. Then they began 0-3.
“Everybody thought we were just going to pick the No. 1 pick and we were going to be like the worst team in the NBA,” Kanter said. “People don’t know how hard we work on this court every day.”
The Knicks soon should get a better idea of where they are. After this game, they will play 16 of their next 20 games on the road, where they’re 2-10.
Hornacek said he thinks his team is “getting there on the road” and that he sees this stretch not as the crossroads for the season but as an opportunity for the team “to come together,” “grow” and “get into a little rhythm.”
Kanter sees it this way: “It’s a good challenge for us because if we want to make the playoffs and if we want to go far in the playoffs, if we are thinking about the championship rings, we need to learn how to win on the road.”
Notes & quotes: Guard Courtney Lee missed practice for personal reasons, but a Knicks spokesman said he’s expected back for the game . . . Center/forward Kyle O’Quinn was ill and missed practice but is probable. . . . … Kanter has been bothered by back, hip and neck issues but hasn’t lost his sense of humor over that fact. “I’m good,” he said. “We’ve got 32 games in. We’ve got 50 regular-season games left, then the playoffs. And then . . . I might be in the hospital a couple of days resting.”