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Why are Sixers facing elimination? Look past Jalen Brunson to 2 Knicks who had ‘awful’ games



PHILADELPHIA − The explanation for why the 76ers are facing elimination from the first round of the playoffs can be seen in the Knicks’ clutch performances down the stretch throughout the series.

Game 4 was only the latest example.

And no, we’re not talking about Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson, who had a game-high 47 points, scoring nearly half of the Knicks points in sending the Sixers to a 97-92 loss Sunday in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference playoff series.

The Sixers are down 3-1 in the series with Game 5 on Tuesday in New York. All you had to do was look at two Knicks, who were teammates with Brunson at Villanova, to understand why.

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For all intents and purposes, both Donte DiVincenzo, the Salesianum School star in Delaware, and Josh Hart had dreadful games.

Yet DiVincenzo was hardly fazed by his 0-for-6 start from the field Sunday, which came on the heels of his 2-for-7 shooting night in Game 3. So there he was, without any hesitation, draining a 3-pointer with 2:41 left in the third quarter, cutting the Sixers’ seven-point lead down to four.

And there he was again, hitting another three on the Knicks’ next possession, cutting the Sixers’ lead to one point. But DiVincenzo wasn’t done. Before the quarter ended, he hit a layup after Brunson’s 3-pointer. Just like that, the Knicks led by a point at the end of the third.

“Those two threes he hit were huge,” Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey said.

“Enormous,” Hart said.

Those 8 points were the only points of the game for DiVincenzo. Hart was much worse offensively. He missed all 7 of his shots and scored just 4 points. He missed both free throws with 22 seconds left, when the Knicks had a four-point lead. He committed five turnovers.

Yet there Hart was, pulling down 17 rebounds and blocking three shots. Two of those blocks came in the fourth quarter.

“I had to do something!” Hart said with a laugh. “Offensively, it just wasn’t there today. When you have that, you have to try to figure out ways to still make an impact in the game. For me, that was rebounding and pushing, offensive rebounding and trying to get extra possessions.”

“When you’re not making shots, you gotta find other ways to impact the game.”

The Sixers are still trying to figure that out.

Sixers center Joel Embiid, gimpy from a knee injury and perhaps his vision still blurred from Bell’s Palsey, had to play the entire second half − and 44 minutes in all. That’s because when Embiid sat out for four minutes to start the second quarter, the Knicks erased the Sixers’ 10-point lead.

So it’s easy to surmise that Embiid, who took a hard tumble in the third quarter only to get up slowly, was running on fumes in the fourth quarter when the Knicks held him to 1 point on 0-for-5 shooting.

For the game, Embiid had a game-high 27 points on 7-for-19 shooting.

Where were his teammates?

Maxey had 23 points, but he made only 8 of 21 shots, going 2-for-8 for 5 points in the fourth quarter. Tobias Harris had just 10 points. Kyle Lowry shot 1-for-6 for 7 points. And the Sixers bench scored just 6 points.

So the Knicks clamped down on Embiid in the fourth quarter, double-teaming him whenever he got the ball, forcing him to pass. No one could make the Knicks pay.

“In the past, I would usually try to force it, try to do it by myself,” Embiid said. “But I feel like I’m at the point in my career where I’m OK with (passing). The whole fourth quarter, they tried to get the ball out of my hands by doubling.

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“You’ve just got to keep trusting. And I trust these guys.”The problem for the Sixers is that there are no secrets in the playoffs. The Knicks are going to keep double-teaming Embiid with OG Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa, who blocked one of Embiid’s 3-point shots off Embiid and into the stands in the third quarter, until the Sixers make them stop.

Sixers coach Nick Nurse knows this, too.

He was asked repeatedly about what the Knicks did defensively in the fourth quarter to stop Embiid.

“It got a little difficult to find a rhythm, and then, listen, we executed a lot of stuff, making the right reads and didn’t knock some of those shots down,” Nurse said. “Missed a couple of layups. There were some clunky possessions here and there. It’s playoffs, and both teams have those.

“But mostly, we just needed to knock a few of those in, and finish a little tougher at the rim.”

When Nurse finished his answer after the third straight question on the subject, he added for effect: “Same answer three times in a row.”

That’s because when it mattered most, DiVincenzo made two clutch threes and a layup, and Hart made sure the other Sixers couldn’t take advantage when the Knicks double-teamed Embiid.

So the Sixers are left to win three straight over the Knicks in order to advance, with two of those games at Madison Square Garden.

It’s not impossible, but it will take toughness, resolve and clutch play from more than one or two players. The Knicks showed they have that with two players who had brutal games on offense in DiVincenzo and Hart.

The Sixers haven’t.

“The message you send is it’s the first to four (wins),” Maxey said. “They have three already, so we have to go up there and fight for our lives. Fight for our season. That’s what it is.”

Contact Martin Frank at Follow on X @Mfranknfl.

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