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Knicks vs. 76ers: Why nothing mattered until the final seconds of the closest possible NBA playoff series

PHILADELPHIA — Asked about the themes of their first-round series against the New York Knicks on Thursday, Philadelphia 76ers coach Nick Nurse gave a quote that amounted to a 30-second shrug of the shoulders.

“I’ve decided nothing matters,” he said less than two hours before Game 6 tipped off at Wells Fargo Center. “They kill us on the glass, it goes down to the buzzer. We kill them on the glass, it goes down to the buzzer. Joel [Embiid] scores 50, it goes down to the buzzer. [Jalen] Brunson scores 47, it goes down to the buzzer.

“Tell me what matters. When everybody figures it out, let me know. I mean, it’s all themes you can talk about, but it seems to me that these are two teams just fighting their guts out, no matter what theme may appear to stand out.”

On social media, people described the quote as nihilistic. Perhaps prophetic would have been more suitable. With Nurse’s team facing elimination, the game played out as if the Basketball Gods were trying to reinforce his point. It took less than 10 minutes for the Knicks to build a 22-point lead, the largest one that either team had held in the series, and it took less than 13 minutes for the Sixers to completely erase it. 

At halftime, New York’s Donte DiVincenzo, who had shot 3-for-17 from deep in the three preceding games, had made four of his six 3-point attempts, and Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey, two days removed from a legendary, 46-point eruption, had just two points on 1-for-6 shooting. Sixers reserve Buddy Hield, who hadn’t played since the first half of Game 3, scored more points (17) in the second quarter than the entire Knicks roster (15) and earned “BUD-DY!” chant during a 43-16 run. Philadelphia was the first team in 25 years to lead at the half after trailing by 20-plus in a playoff game, per ESPN.

By the time the ball found Knicks forward Josh Hart wide open on the perimeter with 27 seconds left in the game, Brunson had 39 points and 11 assists and Embiid had 37 points and 13 rebounds. Less than three minutes earlier, OG Anunoby had dunked on Embiid to put New York up by eight points, but that lead had already evaporated. The Knicks and Sixers had both been excellent on the offensive glass and they’d both made more than 43% of their 3s and none of it mattered. The only thing that mattered, with the game tied at 111, was Hart’s uncontested shot.

He swished it.

“Give them some credit for hitting a huge 3 in three of the wins at the end,” Nurse said following the 118-115 loss. “The series probably could’ve went the exact opposite [from] the way it did, but it didn’t. So congratulate them for ending up on the positive side of it.”

Nurse said he told his team in the locker room that he was proud of how they fought. Asked what the difference ultimately was in the series, he said, “Well, I’m not sure there was much difference. I mean, I think that, you know, they hit a couple shots at the end, probably, is the difference.” 

In six games, New York cumulatively outscored Philadelphia by a single point. “That series was … that was a fight,” center Mitchell Robinson said in the visitors’ locker room. “That was a dogfight. It wasn’t going to be easy. They play extremely hard. They play well. It was just one of them dogfights.” Asked if, after going up by 22, he allowed himself to think the Knicks might finally avoid a tight finish, center Isaiah Hartenstein laughed and said no — they are used to wild swings; what matters is how you handle them.

“You just have to consistently stay with it. I think we did a good job this game — we fouled at the end,” Hartenstein said, alluding to New York’s costly crunch-time mistake two days earlier. “I think we were smart at the end.”

In the Sixers’ locker room, Kyle Lowry, who had just completed his 18th season in the NBA, said that this series is up there with all of the craziest seven-gamers that he’s played in. “Wild finishes, and a lot of things that [happened],” he said. He tipped his hat to Brunson, DiVincenzo and Hart, his fellow Villanova Wildcat alumni, and described it as “a great series” and “a fun series.”

When Philadelphia fell down by 22, the players talked about staying present. “It’s a long game,” Lowry said. “They came out, they were playing really fast, but that just shows the guts that this team has had. We really came back, fought back and gave us a chance to win the game.”

As awful as it feels to “only lose by three or four in multiple games in this series,” forward Kelly Oubre Jr. said, the Knicks simply “made it happen. And it was kind of a will-to-win type beat.”

Lowry said he wouldn’t have trouble squaring the small margins with the reality that there would not be a Game 7: “It’s over. That’s our league. You lose four, you go home and you’re back to the bottom of the totem pole.” He did say, however, that he didn’t know “if I’ll be able to sleep, the way we lost the game.” 

“It sucks,” Oubre said. “It f—ing sucks. And at the end of the day, it’s something that you store into that core memory and then you use that as fuel going forward.”

On the other side of it, Hartenstein had to start thinking about what’s next: a second-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers. New York coach Tom Thibodeau told the team it could enjoy the victory “until 12,” Hartenstein said, “but it was f—ing 12 when he said that, so I guess we gotta refocus already.” 

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