NEW YORK — After a Joel Embiid tip-in put the Philadelphia 76ers up by 14 with under five minutes remaining Sunday afternoon, the superstar center stretched his arms out wide above his head and soaked in the boos from the partisan crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Thanks to dominant performances from 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 celebrated a triumphant return to the NBA’s Christmas Day schedule after a one-year hiatus with a 119-112 victory over the New York Knicks.
“It feels good,” Embiid said. “It’s a blessing to be here. There’s not a lot of teams, a lot of guys, that get these opportunities.”
There’s also not a lot of teams that have a pair of guys like Embiid and Harden at their disposal.
Sunday’s game — the first of five played on the marquee day of the regular-season calendar — was a reminder of the way star power is, quite often, the difference maker in the NBA. And although the Sixers’ season got off to a slow start, Embiid and Harden have begun to find a groove together over the past few weeks, helping the 76ers win their eighth straight game.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers said before the game that usually one team adjusts well to the noon start time, and he hoped it would be his. But the Knicks dominated the first quarter from virtually every standpoint, led by Julius Randle, who scored 25 of his 35 points in the opening half.
“You never know how these afternoon games are going to start,” Rivers said afterward. “I thought their first quarter, they had all the energy, they killed us on the glass the whole first half. I thought they were quicker to everything.”
But despite that, the 76ers trailed by only three at halftime — thanks, in part, to a half-court heave by Shake Milton that banked in off the glass.
And as Knicks icons Carmelo Anthony and Bernard King — who remains the record-holder for the most points scored (60) on Christmas Day — sat side-by-side on the baseline opposite Philadelphia’s bench and watched the proceedings, they witnessed Embiid dragging his 76ers back into the game.
“That was the difference, I’m telling you,” Rivers said. “The second half was the second half. But Joel coming out towards the end of the second quarter and being aggressive, I really thought that changed the game. Changed the tenor of the game.”
Embiid scored 11 of his 35 points in the second quarter, helping Philadelphia close the gap after trailing by as many as 14 in the first half, before scoring another 15 in the third quarter to keep the Sixers within striking distance against a hot New York offense.
Then it was Harden’s turn to take over in the fourth, as he and Georges Niang got into a rhythm in a two-man game in which Harden racked up six points and five assists while Niang hit four triples as the pair combined to outscore the Knicks 18-16.
“We found something,” Harden said. “We found something we liked, and then we just tried to get the best available shot.
“Georges got a couple easy looks, and I told him to just take his time. He made one, he made two, and that kind of opened up the game for us.”
Philadelphia’s 1-4 start now feels like a lifetime ago. Since those opening five games, the 76ers have been the NBA’s second-best defensive team, and they have the third-best net rating, outscoring teams by more than five points per 100 possessions. Regardless of who wins Sunday’s battle between the Celtics and Bucks (the top two seeds in the East), Philadelphia will be two games in the loss column behind the East leader, and one back of second.
“We’re getting there,” Harden said. “But we’ve just got to take it one game at a time, and continue to get better. I think we’re hitting strides and getting better on both ends of the ball, which as the season goes on to get where we want to go, which we’re definitely heading in the right direction, we’re going to be a very difficult team to beat.”
Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey remained out Sunday with a foot fracture that has kept him out since mid-November, though he could be back soon. Also on the injury front, Knicks guard Jalen Brunson left the game in the second half after grabbing at his right hip.
New York declined to make Brunson available after the game and did not reveal details on the injury.