PHILADELPHIA — There are no easy games for the Knicks, the residue of being consistently one of the worst teams in the NBA. But even by that standard, the Knicks began a stretch of 11 games Wednesday night that could serve as a death march for an already staggering season.
In the first stop, at least they showed they were going to make it a fight — in all senses of the word.
The Knicks battled the 76ers, building a 17-point second-half lead, before falling, 109-104, dropping to 4-11 on the season. And they were willing to fight, too, with Marcus Morris dragging Joel Embiid to the floor and the two sides squaring off and posturing before being separated.
“He’s too big to be flopping,” Morris said. “He’s just flopping and grabbing. And I’m not the one to take that so. He knows that. He knows what I’m about . . . There are no hard feelings. I’m not taking it to no Twitter or Instagram, I’m not that dude. And he knows that. Whatever happened out there is done. We’re worried about the next game and I’m worried about my team.”
But despite the fight and putting together one of their best games of the season, the Knicks still didn’t have enough to hang on. This marked the second time in the last three games that the Knicks blew a lead of at least 15 points in the second half, doing it against the Hornets, too.
Morris, playing in his hometown, had 22 points, 13 rebounds, six assists — and a technical and a flagrant foul. Frank Ntilikina played as well offensively as he has this season, scoring 17 points, just one off from his career high, on 6-for-8 shooting. But in the end the Knicks just didn’t have enough to hold off the 76ers. Philadelphia was powered by Embiid, who had 23 points and 12 rebounds. Ben Simmons had 18 points and 13 assists and nearly brought down the arena with his first career three-point field goal after missing all 17 he’d attempted.
The Knicks had a stretch of tough games like this to start the season and could not live up to the challenge, losing seven of their first eight games. This time it is a stretch of 11 games against teams that made the playoffs last year and the Knicks believe they are better equipped for the task.
The Knicks seemed poised to head to their most impressive win of the season in the third quarter, shocking the 76ers and their fans at the Wells Fargo Center with a 15-0 run to start the second half, turning a two-point deficit into a 66-53 lead. The Knicks stretched the lead to 77-60 with a highlight play, Ntilikina stealing the ball and starting a break. When Julius Randle missed, Barrett soared in and slammed it back in with his right hand.
The 76ers called timeout and recovered quickly. With 3:20 remaining in the third quarter Al Horford drained a three-pointer and the 76ers outscored the Knicks, 14-2 over that last 3:20, closing the gap to 79-74 entering the fourth quarter. It took just three minutes into the quarter for the 76ers to take the lead back.
“Keep climbing. Keep digging,” Fizdale said. “Obviously, this is painful because they really wanted this and we had a chance. But I told them, don’t make excuses. I don’t want to hear excuses. We ain’t pointing the fingers at officials or none of that crap. What can we control? To a man they all said, getting back on defense, getting to the three-point line, trusting the offense. So the fact that they’re saying this stuff means that we’ve got a chance to improve at these things.”
The Knicks were down two with two minutes left after Ntilikina misfired from three-point range, but Randle sneaked in to steal the ball in the backcourt, drawing a foul. But he missed the first free throw before making the second, leaving the Knicks still behind. The Knicks got another steal, but Randle missed a wild fast break attempt and Mike Scott delivered a three at the other end. Another three by Embiid cemented the victory for the 76ers.