PHILADELPHIA — James Harden didn’t score 100 points, but he did score enough to repel the pesky Knicks on Wednesday at festive Wells Fargo Center.
Looking to spoil the 76ers’ grand old party that welcomed Harden to Philly for his first home game, the Knicks led by 16 points in the first half before folding in a 38-19 third quarter — their season’s Achilles’ heel.
It felt like a playoff atmosphere, but the Knicks do not look like they are going to the playoffs. Harden went for 26 points, nine assists and nine rebounds as the skidding Knicks blew another double-digit lead in the 123-108 defeat.
Afterward, coach Tom Thibodeau said he’s more “concerned” with the defense than the offense and Julius Randle echoed the coach in a long rant about the club losing their defensive identity from last season. The Knicks have dropped six straight and are 3-16 in their past 19 contests.
“I just think we got to be fighting on the defensive end,” Randle said. “Coach had to call timeout in the first minutes of the second half because we weren’t fighting enough. It starts with us. We’re not getting stops at critical moments. Teams are getting on runs.
“When you look at who we were last year, we were the best defensive team in the league and we pride ourselves on getting stops at critical moments,” Randle added. “We’d string together three, four stops in a row. One of the things are coaching staff shows us after games is how many times we got three stops in a row. We’re not doing that enough.”
This was also a night to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point milestone, when he crushed the Knicks in Hershey, Pa., as a Philadelphia Warrior.
The NBA purposely scheduled this matchup to coincide with the anniversary. It was branded as “Wilt Night” — but it was the “Knicks Night” only for the first half.
As they did 60 years ago, the Knicks lost to Philly, this time despite Randle (24) and RJ Barrett (30 and seven assists) combining for 54 points. However, Randle scored just 12 points in the final three periods after a 12-point first quarter.
Their record dropped to 25-37 as the Knicks completed their first of seven straight road contests. With 20 games left, the Knicks’ season already feels over.
Sunday, Evan Fournier said the club is playing with no confidence in fourth quarters. Randle didn’t exactly disagree.
“Personally, no, but I feel like a team there could be a lack of confidence in general maybe,” Randle said. “When you start losing a few in a row, it kind of kills the team spirit. I personally maybe do something to inspire our game, give words of encouragement. But it’s a really hard league. That’s why winning is so precious. We got to find a way to get one.”
When asked specifically if team spirit is waning, Randle said, “I’m a glass-half-full type of guy. I know you’re half-empty but I’m half-full.”
The Knicks only played half a game, though.
“The Beard’ roared out of the tunnel to a standing ovation during pregame intros, then the Sixers’ fans cheered Harden every time the former Net touched the ball in the opening minutes.
In the final minute, he waved on the crowd to cheer more as they upped the lead to 16 points and the public address system rang out a loud “Bing Bong” sound to mock the Knicks’ mantra.
Harden had plenty of help from his new Philly friends as center Joel Embiid (27 points), emerging former Kentucky guard Tirese Maxey (25 points) and Long Island’s Tobias Harris (14 points) were too much for the Knicks’ underwhelming roster lacking a point guard.
The Knicks had just 20 assists and are last in the league in per-game average, but Thibodeau isn’t moved to make a change with Alec Burks as starter and Immanuel Quickley as backup.
“That’s the best we have, so that’s what we’re doing, and they’re capable,” Thibodeau said.
Indeed, it was a real stinker for the shooting guard Fournier, who can’t sustain anything this season. After scoring 24 against Philly on Sunday, he mounted just three points (1 of 8, 0-for-5 from 3) and was benched for the fourth quarter.
“We gave up 68 points in the second half,” Thibodeau said. “We got to find a way to win. We’re doing some good things — not doing enough of it to win.”