NEW YORK — After a tip from Joel Embiid put the Philadelphia 76ers up 14 by less than five minutes Sunday afternoon, the superstar center stretched its arms far above its head and drenched the boos from the partisan crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Thanks to the dominant performances of Embiid (35 points and eight rebounds) and co-star James Harden (29 points and 13 assists while never checking out in the second half), Philadelphia made a triumphant return to the NBA’s holiday calendar after a one-year hiatus 119-112 win over the New York Knicks.
“It feels good,” Embiid said. “It’s a blessing to be here. There aren’t many teams, many people who get these opportunities.”
There are also not many teams that have a pair of guys like Embiid and Harden available.
Sunday’s game — the first of five games played on the regular-season festive day — was a reminder of how star power quite often makes the difference in the NBA. And though the Sixers’ season got off to a slow start, in recent weeks Embiid and Harden have begun to find a common groove and help the 76ers win their eighth straight game.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers said before the game that a team usually sets up well for the noon start time, and he hoped it would be his. But the Knicks dominated the first quarter from virtually every angle, led by Julius Randle, who scored 25 of his 35 first-half points.
“You never know how these afternoon games are going to start,” Rivers said afterwards. “I thought their first quarter, they had all the energy, they killed us on the glass the whole first half. I thought they were faster in everything.”
But still, the 76ers were only three behind at halftime — thanks in part to a half-shot from Shake Milton that went off the glass.
And as Knicks icons Carmelo Anthony and Bernard King — who remains the record holder for most points scored (60) on Christmas Day — sat side by side on the baseline across from the Philadelphia bench and watched the proceedings, they witnessed from Embiid to pull his 76s back into the game.
“That was the difference, I’ll tell you,” Rivers said. “The second half was the second half. But Joel came out towards the end of the second quarter and was aggressive, I really thought that changed the game. Changed the tone of the game.”
Embiid scored 11 of his 35 points in the second quarter and helped Philadelphia close the gap after falling as much as 14 points in the first half before scoring another 15 in the third quarter to put the Sixers within striking distance against a hot New York offense to keep .
Then it was Harden’s turn to take the fourth as he and Georges Niang struck a rhythm in a two-man game in which Harden accumulated six points and five assists while Niang hit four three-pointers as the pair combined the Knicks surpassed 18-16.
“We found something,” Harden said. “We found something we liked and then we just tried to make the best recording available.
“Georges got a few simple looks and I told him to just take his time. He made one, he made two, and that opened the game for us.”
Philadelphia’s 4-1 start feels like an eternity now. For those first five games, the 76ers are the second-best defensive team in the NBA and have the third-best net rating, outperforming teams by more than five points per 100 possessions. Regardless of who wins Sunday’s battle between the Celtics and the Bucks (the East’s top two seeders), Philadelphia will be two games in the loss column behind the East leaders and one behind the second.
“We’re getting there,” Harden said. “But we just have to do it one game at a time and keep improving. I think we’re progressing and getting better at both ends of the ball which gets where we want to go as the season progresses which is definitely going in the right direction, we’re going to be a very difficult team to beat.”
Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey stayed out on Sunday with a broken foot that has kept him out since mid-November, although he could be back soon. Also on the injury front, Knicks guard Jalen Brunson left the game in the second half after grabbing his right hip.
New York declined to make Brunson available after the game and did not provide details about the injury.