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Knicks-Sixers is the first-round series that isn’t like the others

In Sports
April 19, 2024

The Eastern Conference’s second-seeded New York Knicks (50-32) will take on the seventh-seeded Philadelphia 76ers (47-35), who advanced through the play-in tournament, in the first round of the 2024 NBA playoffs. The two franchises haven’t faced off in the postseason since 1989; we probably don’t have to break those matchups down too much to see what they can teach us about this series.

More series previews:
Celtics-Heat | Knicks-76ers | Bucks-Pacers | Cavs-Magic 
Thunder-Pelicans | Nuggets-Lakers | Wolves-Suns | Clippers-Mavs


How the Knicks got here

By making good moves, weathering injuries and watching the birth of a star.

The Knicks struggled to find a rhythm early, alternating successes and stumbles as multiple players questioned their roles. After 31 games, they sat in seventh place — in need of a jolt.

Enter OG Anunoby.

Trading for Anunoby, an All-Defensive Teamer who drills more than 40% of his corner 3s, leveled the Knicks up. New York went 12-2 after OG’s arrival, jumping to the fourth seed … only for injuries to Anunoby and Julius Randle to wobble the would-be contender.

Enter Jalen Brunson.

After Anunoby and Randle’s injuries, Brunson averaged 31.5 points and 7.1 assists per game on 48/37/86 shooting. He was second in the NBA in scoring, usage rate and drives per game in that span; with respect to Donte DiVincenzo (who set the franchise record for 3-pointers), Josh Hart (who had six triple-doubles in 36 games after Randle went down), Isaiah Hartenstein (who assumed a larger playmaking role while anchoring a top-10 defense) and the other Knicks, Brunson was the offense, and New York kept stacking wins.

The Knicks entered Game 82 able to finish anywhere from second to fourth. When the Bucks lost, the Cavaliers could’ve seized second — and with it, a post-play-in date with Philadelphia or Miami. Cleveland chose to ease off the gas, angling for a loss, fourth place and the inexperienced Magic.

The Knicks did not ease up, outlasting the Bulls in overtime to lock in No. 2, no matter who’d be waiting in seventh. Quoth head coach Tom Thibodeau: “The object is to win.” What a concept!


How the 76ers got here

By (hopefully) getting the worst out of the way early this time.

Nobody was playing better than Joel Embiid. The reigning MVP was authoring an encore for the ages, averaging 36 points in 34.2 minutes per game, dishing assists at a career-high rate and anchoring a top-six defense.

With Tyrese Maxey ascending to All-Star status, the Sixers were within 1.5 games of second place, with the East’s second-best net rating, halfway through the season. Milwaukee had just fired its coach. The Knicks had just lost Anunoby and Randle. Philly looked like Boston’s most dangerous opponent.

So, naturally, a nightmare:

Without Embiid, opponents threw the kitchen sink at Maxey, daring other Sixers to beat them. They couldn’t: Philly went 11-18 and got outscored by more than five points per 100 possessions while Embiid recuperated from knee surgery, falling into the play-in.

The silver lining to that gray cloud: Embiid came back April 2, averaging 30-9-5 on 50/48/88 shooting to help Philly rediscover its rhythm. He bounced back from three worrying quarters against the Heat on Wednesday with a brilliant fourth — 11 points, four rebounds, two huge 3-pointers and two assists — to outlast Miami and survive the play-in.

The Sixers are undefeated since Embiid’s return, outscoring opponents by 10.3 points-per-100 across eight games, according to PBP Stats. All things being equal, you’d prefer to have not lost your best player for two months. But if he’s actually (mostly) healthy when the games matter most this time around … then maybe this really is The Year?


Head-to-head

New York won the season series, 3-1. All four meetings came after the Anunoby trade, including a 128-92 blowout in Philadelphia that announced the Knicks’ arrival.

That was the only game Embiid played against New York this season. He got his customary 30-and-10. But the Knicks made him work for it.

Thibodeau trusted Hartenstein, who finished the season second in the NBA in defensive estimated plus-minus, to body up Embiid, and then provided reinforcements from different angles. Early help rotations to put two defenders in Embiid’s lap on the catch, dig-downs from up top when he started a move, aggressive doubles whenever he turned his back, stunt-and-recover help from the low man, the occasional switch … the Knicks threw a lot at Embiid, producing six turnovers, three shots blocked and plenty of other hurried looks:

With Hartenstein, a healthy Mitchell Robinson and Precious Achiuwa in the fold, Anunoby available to guard Maxey and multiple opportunistic help defenders lurking, Thibs has a lot of tools to deploy against Philly’s offense. Embiid and Maxey will have to read the layers of coverage, seize their opportunities, and trust a deep group of role players — Kelly Oubre Jr., play-in legend Nicolas Batum, Buddy Hield, Kyle Lowry, maybe Cam Payne — to make New York pay.

(One thing we’re not likely to see much, though: the zone looks with which Erik Spoelstra gridlocked the Sixers in the first half of the play-in. The Heat went zone on 44 half-court possessions on Wednesday, according to Synergy Sports Technology; the Knicks played zone on 10 possessions all season.)


Matchup to watch

Brunson vs. Nurse

Just as Thibs will show Embiid a ton of different defenses, Nurse — one of the league’s most creative tacticians — will dial up multiple looks for New York’s All-NBA point guard.

The Sixers will put length on Brunson at the point of attack; Oubre and Batum saw the bulk of the regular-season assignment. The physical and savvy Lowry will also take turns on his fellow Villanova alum, as he did for Miami in the 2023 conference semifinals. (De’Anthony Melton would be another nice option, but he’s missed most of the last three-plus months with a back injury; it’s not yet clear if he’ll suit up against New York.)

Beyond the initial matchup, though, it’ll be interesting to see how Nurse toggles coverages against Brunson, the kind of do-it-all force that’s awfully tough to stifle.

Play drop coverage to keep Embiid closer to the rim, and you risk Brunson raining pull-up jumpers. Crank up the heat with blitzes and traps, a popular choice since Randle went down, and Brunson will get off of the ball early, hit a release valve — multiple Knicks can make plays in space — and attack 4-on-3. Get more aggressive with ball denial, and Brunson will get his Stephen Curry on, moving without the ball to either free himself for a catch-and-shoot or scramble the coverage enough to open up a teammate.

The bet here: Brunson will see all of that and then some. Remember: Nurse is the guy who called a box-and-one in the Finals; he’ll leave no stone unturned in search of a way to interrupt the rhythm of one of the NBA’s most efficient shot creators. If he can, the other Knicks will have to keep the offense humming.


PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - FEBRUARY 10: Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks reacts after scoring during the first quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at Wells Fargo Center on February 10, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Can Jalen Brunson carry New York to the next round? (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Closing lineups

New York Knicks
The new-look starting group of Brunson, DiVincenzo, Hart, Anunoby and Hartenstein has played only 16 fourth-quarter minutes. It’s been great overall, though, outscoring opponents by 15.1 points per 100 possessions, scoring and clamping down at elite levels.

There are other options Thibodeau trusts: Robinson; sweet-shooting point-of-attack pest Deuce McBride; Achiuwa if he needs some more athleticism and rebounding; Bojan Bogdanović (40% from 3 over the last 15 games) if the situation calls for another shooter. For the most part, though, I’d expect Thibs to stick with the fastball and make ’em prove they can hit it.

Philadelphia 76ers
Embiid and Maxey are givens. Tobias Harris used to be; it felt notable, though, that Nurse left him on the bench late against Miami, opting instead to roll with Batum, Oubre and Lowry in a lineup that features more playmaking, defensive versatility and general oomph than Harris has provided during an up-and-down season (the last of his contract, by the way).

With Lowry a late arrival on the buyout market and Embiid sidelined for two months, that lineup logged a grand total of 30 minutes during the regular season. You like the feel of it, though — size and length across the forward spots, multiple quality on-ball defenders, plus passers with big-game experience and rim-pressuring attackers. Everyone can make a play, on both ends of the floor. Other players might cycle in — Harris if he’s got it going, Hield for floor-spacing, BBall Paul if Embiid’s in foul trouble, et al. — but that feels like a five Nurse can trust.


Prediction

Knicks in seven. A healthy Embiid is a terrifying matchup coming out of the play-in; on paper, the Sixers have two of the three best players in the series, plus a championship coach. But the Knicks have the physicality and depth to go toe-to-toe with Philly, Thibodeau proved in last year’s playoffs (and this season, after losing Randle) that he can be an adaptable and creative game-planner against tough competition, and the Knicks have been a buzzsaw with Brunson and Anunoby on the floor. New York survives a slugfest to return to Round 2.


Series odds

New York Knicks (-110)
Philadelphia 76ers (-110)


Series schedule (all times Eastern)

Game 1: Sat., April 20 @ New York (6 p.m., ESPN)
Game 2: Mon., April 22 @ New York (7:30 p.m., TNT)
Game 3: Thu., April 25 @ Philadelphia (7:30 p.m., TNT)
Game 4: Sun., April 28 @ Philadelphia (1 p.m., ABC)
Game 5: Tue., April 30 @ New York (TBD)*
Game 6: Thu., May 2 @ Philadelphia (TBD)*
Game 7: Sat., May 4 @ New York (TBD)*

*if necessary

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