Sixers' tough loss to Knicks, but Nick Nurse and Joel Embiid's pride in the team is absolutely valid – NBC Sports Philadelphia

The lines about luck, fate and unknown factors beyond the Sixers' control didn't sound particularly compelling a year ago.

This time, the Sixers couldn't get to Game 7 or get past the first round, suffering a six-game losing streak to the Knicks. But the Sixers didn't wilt like they did in the humiliating, season-ending defeats the last two seasons to the Celtics and Heat, nor did they crumble and waste opportunity after opportunity to beat a less talented opponent like the 2021 Hawks.

In Nick Nurse's first season as head coach, the Sixers played and lost a series full of great games. The Knicks scored 650 points, while the Sixers scored 649 points.

“I just said I was proud of them because I thought they fought,” Nurse said Thursday night after Game 6. “That's all I've ever said. When we get out there, we're going to fight no matter what the score is, whether players are out or hurt. Whatever happens, we've got to go out there and fight. And they've certainly done that in this series and most of the season.”

Nurse always aims to play high-effort, low-foul basketball. Overall, his players were perfect against the Knicks on shots.

Joel Embiid averaged 33 points, 10.8 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.5 blocks while grinding out his latest miserable combination of health issues in the playoffs, including Bell's palsy. With the Sixers' season on the brink, Tyrese Maxey somehow got it back on solid ground with his fifth 46-point game.

Cameron Payne went from out of Nurse's rotation to draining jumpers and delighting the home crowd in Game 3. Buddy Hield did the same in Game 6. Nicolas Batum and Kyle Lowry lived up to their reputations as calm, quick-thinking veterans.

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“We've gotten better,” Lowry told reporters. “I think the guys in this locker room, they competed at a high level. The things that Joel showed us in this series playing with one leg; Therese's growth. (Kelly Oubre Jr.) Toughness. I think the team showed competitive nature. It was fun. After 18 years, you might think it's easier, but it sucks even more when you lose, especially with a great group of guys like that. It was fun to be a part of.”

After his strong Game 5, Tobias Harris…didn't come out very well. He was extremely marginal in Game 6, scoring zero points on 0-for-2 shooting, four rebounds and three assists.

However, overall, the nurse team was not light on chaos.

“The only thing I will say is everyone in the locker room tried for it,” Embiid said. “We played hard. I know it wasn't enough, but I can tell you everyone in the locker room cared.

“We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds, but not because we wanted to. We did our best. Sometimes we could have done more, but sometimes it doesn't go your way. But everyone in that locker room cared and everyone was “In that locker room they want to win and we tried, we played hard and we pushed ourselves. I'm just proud of them.”

Nurse will want more accuracy and fewer botched plays in his second season. For example, after Embiid's layup on Thursday cut New York's lead to 114-113 with 20.8 seconds left, the Sixers couldn't draw an intentional foul on the Knicks for about 10 seconds. And it was Embiid who did just that, scoring his sixth personal goal and watching the final moments from the bench.

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“I thought we were starting to make some steps,” the nurse said. “Listen… you know some ups and downs. There was a time when we had a whole fleet of guys. All everyone kept talking about was that Joel was out, but we had a whole fleet of guys out there. The challenge was: can we get them to To the level of competition? Can we go out there and compete? We just had to raise the level of competition.

“But the special situations, the end-game stuff, the ATO stuff, maybe it wasn't as sharp as I was hoping to get it, right? I think they did that really (well). Even in a lot of these games, we ended up executing a lot. We got a lot of good shots…late in the game, so they were doing a lot of that out there and they did a good job.

As far as the future goes, nothing seems certain besides Maxey and Embiid being a great duo that can (and needs to) get better.

“He has a chance to do something special next year again,” Embiid said at the podium after the game, gesturing to the 23-year-old MVP winner to his left. “I hope he becomes an NBA player this year, but I think he can be involved in things like MVP conversations. I think he can take the next step.”

Whoever the faces are surrounding Embiid and Maxey for the 2024-25 Sixers, we know the gist of what Nurse will strive to accomplish.

“I still think playing hard goes a long way in this league, so we'll keep that going,” he said.

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