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NBA Christmas Day Preview: 76ers-Knicks

Philadelphia 76ers @ New York Knicks

The Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Knicks have been two of the most fun teams to watch in the early part of the 2017-18 NBA season.

NBA fans get to tipoff Christmas Day with a fantastic one-on-one battle that features two of the game’s most transcendental big men: Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid.

The 76ers have really struggled in the absence of Embiid, dropping eight of their last nine games. At 14-17, the 76ers are in 10th place in the Eastern Conference standings.

New York Knicks

Porzingis has blossomed into a full-fledged superstar for the Knicks in the absence of Carmelo Anthony. After a year of non-stop drama, the new King of New York has restored hope to what otherwise appeared to be a bleak situation in the Big Apple.

Porzingis has improved by leaps and bounds during his third NBA season. Despite battling some knee injuries, the 7-foot-3 power forward is averaging 25.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game, while shooting a career-best 46.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from the three-point line so far this season.

The Knicks have been 9.7 points better with The Unicorn on the floor this season. While the Knicks are just 1-5 without Porzingis this year, the Knicks’ star is getting some help from his respective teammates.

Shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was quietly enjoying the best year of his career prior to getting injured. The fifth-year shooting guard is averaging 17.8 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in 21 games this year.

Enes Kanter has been another bright spot for the Knicks this year. Kanter came over in the trade that sent Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the offseason. Known more for his scoring ability in the post, the Knicks forward has quickly become a crowd favorite at Madison Square Garden, earning the admiration of the home crowd for his hustle and grit.

Kanter is averaging 13.2 points and 9.8 rebounds a night, but it doesn’t stop there. The Knicks’ big man has been very effective in the post this season. Kanter post ups are generating 1.092 points per possession, which ranks 2nd in the NBA among players with at least 50 opportunities.

And Kanter isn’t the only player that’s been endearing the crowd at Madison Square Garden lately.

Michael Beasley led the Knicks to a home win over the Celtics earlier this week, posting a season-best 32 points and 12 rebounds in the win. The effort capped a three-game stretch that saw the 28-year-old forward average 28.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

He even drew M-V-P chants from the crowd.

Frank Ntilikina has been gaining confidence in New York and has already shown the potential to be a menacing backcourt defender. The rookie guard locked down Kyrie Irving in the fourth quarter of New York’s 102-93 victory over the Celtics on Thursday night, which earned him some postgame praise from Uncle Drew.

“He’s a good on-ball defender, long,’’ Irving said after the game. “For a young player, he doesn’t back down. I’m looking forward to playing against him again.”

At 8.6 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, Doug McDermott’s numbers don’t stand out, but he’s in the middle of one of a very efficient season off the bench for the Knicks.

Dougie McBuckets has found ways to get open off the ball this season, which has helped him to shoot a career-best 48.6 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from beyond the arc through his first 32 games. Check out this video via Cleaning The Glass:

After Christmas Day, the Knicks will play 16 of their next 20 away from Madison Square Garden.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Process has finally delivered an exciting, playoff-caliber team in Philadelphia, led by enigmatic center Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year candidate Ben Simmons. Embiid has been sitting recently with a back injury, but is expected to be in the lineup for the Christmas Day game against the Knicks.

The 76ers are a different team when Embiid plays. Philly is 13-8 when Embiid plays this season and just 1-8 without him in the lineup. Embiid is averaging 24.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game this season and flashed his potential earlier this year with a 45-15-7-7 performance against the Lakers.

Simmons, meanwhile, is on the fast track to earn Rookie of the Year honors.

The former first overall pick out of LSU is averaging 17.3 points, 9.0 boards, and 7.8 assists through the first 30 games of his NBA career. He has four triple-doubles already this season and four other games where he’s been either a rebound or an assist shy of accomplishing the feat.

And Simmons isn’t backing down on the other end of the floor either.

The 6-foot-10 point guard is averaging 2.0 steals and 0.9 blocks for the season, while willingly taking on some difficult assignments on the defensive end. Check out the video below:

Simmons has already put all-world instincts and talents on display several times this season. He’s developed a reputation for making defenders look silly with head-turning passes and dazzling dribbling moves, but it’s his commitment on the defensive end that gives him a chance to be one of the all-time greats.

Outside of Simmons and Embiid, Robert Covington and J.J. Redick are next in line at 16.5 and 15.1 points per game, respectively.

Redick came over as a free agent in the offseason and has delivered some consistency to a 76ers offense that was desperate for three-point shooting. Redick is shooting 38.9 percent from deep, while Covington has hit 39.8 percent of his attempts from three-point range so far this year.

The trio of Embiid, Simmons, and Covington has been particularly good too. When those three players are on the floor, the 76ers rank in the 97th percentile for point differential and opponents field goal percentage, per Cleaning The Glass. Together, they also rank in the 98th percentile in defensive efficiency.

The 76ers have been one of the most exciting teams to watch so far this year and the impending return of No.1 overall pick Markelle Fultz will make them even more intriguing.

Fultz, who has been out with a shoulder injury, has not played since Oct. 23 and will be re-evaluated at the beginning of January.

The Process might still be one year away from The Playoffs, but if Fultz can come back and make a positive contribution, this team has the potential to sneak into one of the final postseason spots.

That would set up a potential Celtics-76ers or Cavs-76ers first-round matchup – which would be must-see TV.