The Sixers' Christmas win showcased the offensive firepower they've been hoping to have all season.

TECHNOLOGY
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Joel Embiid was rolling midway through the fourth quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ Christmas Day game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He was up to 31 points, a performance that resulted in another monster night for the NBA’s scoring leader.

And yet, in perhaps the biggest stage of the regular season the league has to offer, the Sixers franchise player was content to play spectator.

After the Sixers secured a defensive rebound, Embiid pointed at Georges Niang. Embiid earns over $30 million more per season than Niang, but he saw that his teammate was playing a key role in putting the Knicks’ defense in a tight spot. Specifically, New York’s Julius Randle was having trouble defensively whenever Niang set up a canvas for James Harden. Then, Embiid pointed to the man known as “The Minivan”.

Niang, who hit a 3-pointer in the same pick-and-pop action as the previous possession, hit again. Harden leveled two defenders, and when Jalen Brunson swerved past his man to help Randle, Niang quickly moved the ball to De’Anthony Melton. So after Melton drove and kicked the ball back to Niang, the Sixers’ leading 3-point shooter of the season was up in the air.

As Embiid watched, he liked what he saw. The second Niang fired, Embiid opened his arms expectantly. As soon as the ball landed in the net, Embiid walked to the corner to shout at the New York crowd. He knew a timeout was coming, just as he knew a 3-pointer from Niang was coming a few seconds early.

The Sixers beat the Knicks 119-112 at the Christmas matinee, extending their winning streak to eight games and their overall record to 20-12 as they continue to climb the rankings. And it’s that particular streak, with an overwhelming level of offensive talent choosing from a menu of enticing options, that makes you wonder how the Sixers got here at this point, just 2.5 games behind the best record in the NBA.

It’s not a surprise that the Sixers find themselves in this position at Christmas. But the way they did it wasn’t scripted. At the start of the season, the Sixers’ blueprint for success was “elite offense, slightly above average defense.” Even after tearing apart the Knicks on Sunday, the Sixers are averaging just 113.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, good for 14th in the league.

But that offensive unit that was on display at the Garden? This was no average offensive unit.

Part of the offensive production more or less this season comes down to Embiid, Harden and Tyrese Maxey all missing significant time with injuries (Maxey is still out after breaking his foot five weeks ago). Now, Embiid and Harden, at least, are in shape as we approach the midpoint of the season.

Embiid, who has dominated for nearly two months, weathered an unusually difficult first half to score 35 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field against the Knicks. After relying on the free-throw line to keep him afloat, a tool he can use to lift the ground during introductions, Embiid found a rhythm when he returned from the locker room after the break. He was 8 for 12 in the second half and made it look easy.

The Knicks played one-off coverage against the Sixers’ big man. Mitchell Robinson is a strong defender, but on this play, Embiid casually takes him across the lane and lands a hook on him.

As the game progressed, Embiid was more patient in waiting for help from the defense and scoring. When the Knicks defense showed help, Embiid found PJ Tucker for a 3-point play. Now that Embiid has improved his passing and ground vision, there’s no good way to defend him.

Harden saved one of his best offensive games of the season for the big round, finishing with 29 points, 13 assists and just one turnover. Since stumbling into Houston in his first game back from injury, Harden’s numbers have been excellent: 21.6 points and 12.8 assists per game on 61 percent shooting. On Sunday, Harden’s scoring kept the Sixers afloat when Embiid was resting. Montrezl Harrell, Embiid’s backup, finished with 13 points in 14 minutes despite shooting 0-of-2 from the field. This was mostly done by Harden.

Harden made 5-of-11 3-point shooting and 10-of-11 from the free throw line. When he singled out Randle and the other weaker Knicks defenders during screen actions, he hit some deep 3s.

Of course, this game would have been less fun if the Sixers hadn’t waited until the fourth quarter to stop the Knicks’ offense. That’s the other confusing end of the spectrum this Sixers season to date. The Sixers are fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions this season, which is an excellent mark. But it sure didn’t look like anyone was watching one of the league’s most elite units as the Knicks reached 95 points in three quarters.

The key stat that calls into question the 76ers’ high defense rating is that opponents are shooting just 32.7 from beyond the arc, last in the NBA. There’s good reason to believe that at least part of this cold shot is a lucky break in the Sixers’ direction, rather than something Philly is doing to limit 3-point open looks. The Knicks, particularly Brunson and Randle, got everything they wanted in isolation for long stretches of the game. Tucker, who was mainly brought in to bolster the defense, was consistently outdribbled by Randle, who scored 35 points.

The Sixers opted for a zone defense that slowed the Knicks down in a 16-point fourth quarter, but that looks more like a temporary solution than a primary one. The Sixers are playing in the zone on 6.5 percent of their defensive possessions, sixth most in the league, according to Synergy Sports. It’s a strategy Doc Rivers leaned on when man-to-man defense felt like a slow pace. The Knicks also pummeled the Sixers into the defensive glass for extended periods, finishing the game by recovering 32.6 percent of their misses.

But the Sixers also flexed some versatility. Melton landed some hot shots (5 of 7 from beyond the arc) to go along with his save. Additionally, the Sixers replaced Niang with Tucker in the fourth quarter, something they’ve been doing frequently lately. With the improvement of Tobias Harris as a catch-and-shoot player, the Sixers have several options regarding the Harden-Embiid two-man game. It is much easier to defend when the other team needs to get the ball out of the net.

After Niang’s 3-pointer, the Sixers returned to the same action. When the Knicks traded Randle for Harden, he single-handedly defeated him.

It’s unclear what the future holds for the team. But at Christmas in New York, the Sixers played as a team and showed how prolific they can be offensively.

(Main photo by Joel Embiid: Dustin Satloff/NBAE via Getty Images)

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