2024 Playoffs: East First Round | Knicks (2) vs. 76ers (7)

Knicks-Sixers: 5 takeaways from dramatic, series-clinching Game 6

Josh Hart hits the biggest shot of his life, New York wins the energy battle and Philly enters an offseason of uncertainty.

Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson come up clutch in the Knicks' Game 6 closeout win against the 76ers.

• Download the NBA App

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers had been leaving Josh Hart open behind the 3-point line all series. It’s not that they were happy to leave somebody alone beyond the arc. But you can’t guard everything in this league, and that was poison they picked in their first-round series against the New York Knicks.

And it was the poison that ultimately killed the Sixers’ season.

With the game tied and Philly scrambling to keep Jalen Brunson contained on the left side of the floor, Hart was open at the top of the arc. Tyrese Maxey stunted toward Hart but chose to retreat to Donte DiVincenzo on the right wing.

“My first instinct was, if they rotate, make the pass to [DiVincenzo],” Hart said afterward. “Obviously, the game plan was to not rotate to me.

“I was able to get my feet set and shoot an uncontested, open shot.”

His 3-pointer swished through the net with 24.4 seconds left, giving the Knicks the lead and, eventually, a 118-115 victory in Game 6 that takes them into an Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Indiana Pacers that begins Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) at Madison Square Garden.

Here are some notes, quotes, numbers and film as the Knicks advanced to the conference semis for the second straight year …

1. The up-15 Knicks are still undefeated

After scoring an amazing 33 points on their first 16 possessions, the Knicks led Game 6 by 22. Before Thursday, they were the league’s only undefeated team in games they led by 15 points or more.

But that 22-point lead quickly began to melt away. The Sixers went on an 11-0 run late in the first quarter before Hart ended the Knicks’ drought with a transition 3-pointer. Then Philly, continually working through Joel Embiid in the post, outscored New York by 17 points (32-15) in the second to take a three-point halftime lead.

But the Knicks responded, scoring an amazing 67 points on 45 second-half possessions (1.49 per) to win the game.

So, while they blew a 22-point lead, they remain undefeated (38-0) when leading by at least 15 points.

Best records when leading by at least 15 points, 2023-24

Team W L PCT
New York 37 0 1.000
Oklahoma City 43 1 0.977
L.A. Lakers 29 1 0.967
Indiana 36 2 0.947
Utah 18 1 0.947

Includes regular season, Play-In and playoffs

The Sixers, meanwhile, finished the season 0-18 in games they trailed by at least 20. Comebacks are a little more common now than they were 10 years ago, but they’re still not easy.

2. Knicks win the energy battle

They’re especially not easy against a team that can play with as much fourth-quarter energy as the Knicks.

With Bojan Bogdanovic suffering a season-ending foot injury in Game 4, the Knicks used just seven players in the last two games of this series. DiVincenzo was the one who played all 48 minutes on Thursday, but Hart (who played all 53 two nights earlier), Brunson and OG Anunoby also barely left the floor, all logging at least 43 1/2 minutes.

Yet it was the Knicks who, collectively, again had the most energy down the stretch.

With both defenses stretched out to contain the opposing point guards, there were offensive rebounds to be had. The teams combined for nine offensive boards and 17 second-chance points in the final period.

Hart had three of those fourth-quarter offensive boards, finishing with six in the game and 22 for the series.

The Knicks’ energy also showed up in transition, with their three Villanova guys combining for a huge fast-break 3-pointer (following one of Hart’s eight defensive rebounds) midway through the period.

Jalen Brunson transition 3-pointer

The one 76er able to match the Knicks’ energy was Maxey. But New York was a little more aggressive in its pick-and-roll coverage on Thursday, doing a better job of getting the ball out of his hands. After scoring 46 points in Game 5, Maxey had just 17 (on 6-for-18 shooting) in Game 6.

The Knicks’ pick-and-roll coverage often left Joel Embiid open at the foul line. But Embiid wasn’t able to attack the rotating defense. If he did drive, he didn’t do it with much burst, seemingly hoping to draw a foul.

This was still the Sixers’ second most efficient offensive game of the series. But the Knicks just had a little more down the stretch.

3. Brunson wasn’t efficient, but he got the job done

Through Thursday, 13 players (three in this series) have averaged at least 25 points in the playoffs. And among the 13, Brunson has had the lowest true shooting percentage (52.5%), meaning he’s been the least efficient of those high-volume scorers.

But there’s no doubt the Knicks needed everything their point guard could give them. Only Embiid has a higher usage rate in these playoffs than Brunson, who has accounted for 37% of the Knicks’ points and 43% of their assists while on the floor.

The attention paid to Brunson created a lot of the Knicks’ shots, whether he assisted on them or not. And he had a couple of tough buckets of his own down the stretch in Game 6.

Midway through the fourth, he picked up his dribble with just seven seconds left on the shot clock. He almost got caught in the air but got the ball to Isaiah Hartenstein. Before he hit the ground, he was chasing his own pass and gaining a step on his defender as he got the ball back.

When the Sixers seemingly had him trapped, Brunson found space to launch a leaning 15-footer that rattled in and put the Knicks up five …

Jalen Brunson jump shot

In the final two minutes, the Sixers double-teamed Brunson at the start of every possession. But after Oubre was called for a foul trying to deny him the ball, Philly failed to send another double-team on the ensuing inbounds play. Brunson drove past Oubre, slammed on the brakes, drew contact, and got a floater to fall …

Jalen Brunson floater

Brunson averaged 35.5 points over the series, the seventh most for any player in a series of at least six games in the last 25 years.

4. Even a less-than-100-percent Embiid makes a big difference

Embiid bounced back from a rough Game 5 to score 39 points in Game 6, shooting 12-for-25 from the field and 13-for-13 from the line.

Big picture, it was another postseason in which the reigning Kia MVP was not at his best, either dealing with an injury or coming back from one. Embiid was not in great shape in this series, having recently returned from an extended absence. He seemingly re-aggravated his knee injury in Game 1, was dealing with a case of Bell’s Palsy and was listed as questionable before Game 5 with a migraine.

But any Embiid is better than no Embiid. In this series, the Sixers outscored the Knicks by 46 points (9.3 per 100 possessions) in his 248 minutes on the floor, and they were outscored by 47 (52.4 per 100 possessions) in his 45 minutes on the bench.

It was reminiscent of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals, when the Sixers were outscored by 109 points in Embiid’s 99 minutes off the floor, losing at the buzzer in Game 7.

For the season, Philly was 34-12 (.730) when Embiid played and 16-27 (.372) when he didn’t. He wasn’t eligible for a second straight Kia MVP award, but he still may be the most valuable player in the league.

5. Sixers head into the summer with a mostly blank slate

Philly is among four teams to win over 60% of their games over the last seven regular seasons. The other three — the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics and the Denver Nuggets — have all been to the Finals in that stretch, and two of them won championships.

The Sixers (347-208, .625) haven’t reached the conference finals since 2001. They now head into another offseason that could change the franchise dramatically.

It’s been a wild ride since the start of “The Process,” with highly paid players like Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick and Tobias Harris cycling in and out around Embiid.

Of the 16 players on the Sixers’ current roster, only Embiid has a guaranteed contract for next season. Everyone else is either a free agent, a potential free agent (Philly has a team option on little-used guard Jeff Dowtin), or has a non-guaranteed contract for 2024-25.

Priority No. 1, of course, is re-signing Maxey (a restricted free agent). After that, team president Daryl Morey is working with a very blank slate, though the list of available, star-level free agents is limited.

One of the highest-paid players who will be a free agent is the Sixers’ own Harris, who averaged just nine points per game in this series. Given his underwhelming performance this season, his return doesn’t seem likely, but it will be fascinating to see the terms of Harris’ next contract — wherever he lands.

The Sixers do have some extra picks in future Drafts, so they could also explore the trade market. No matter what, with Embiid now 30 years old, it will be a critical offseason for one of the league’s marquee franchises.

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X. 

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery