2024 Playoffs: East First Round | Knicks (2) vs. 76ers (7)

NBA Playoffs: What to expect in Knicks-76ers series

Joel Embiid will test New York inside, while Philadelphia's perimeter defense must contain Jalen Brunson.

Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Maxey form an All-Star-caliber matchup at guard.

What a difference three or four victories make. The Knicks won 50 games to jump into the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed over Milwaukee (49 wins), Cleveland (48) and three other teams that finished with 47 wins. One of those was Philadelphia, which had to battle Wednesday with Miami (46) in the SoFi Play-In Tournament to secure the No. 7 seed. Meanwhile, New York has been off since Sunday.

The Knicks won the season series 3-1, capitalizing on 76ers center Joel Embiid’s absence from three of the meetings. The Knicks’ victories came by margins of 36, 14, and 27 points. This will be the 10th playoff meeting of these franchises and the first since 1989.

Series schedule 

Here’s how to watch the Knicks vs. 76ers series:

All times Eastern Daylight Time

Game 1: 76ers vs. Knicks, April 20 (6 p.m., ESPN)

Game 2: 76ers vs. Knicks, April 22 (7:30 p.m., TNT)

Game 3: Knicks vs. 76ers, April 25 (7:30 p.m., TNT)

Game 4: Knicks vs. 76ers, April 28 (1 p.m., ABC)

Game 5: 76ers vs. Knicks, April 30 (TBD, TBD)*

Game 6: Knicks vs. 76ers, May 2 (TBD, TBD)*

Game 7: 76ers vs. Knicks, May 4 (TBD, TNT)*

* = If necessary

Top storyline 

The big man. It’s been said that the second-best team in the East this spring hasn’t been New York, Milwaukee or any of the other guaranteed seeds lined up behind Boston. The second-best team has been Philadelphia with Joel Embiid. That 76ers squad went 31-8 in the games he played.

Most of that came in the first half of Philadelphia’s schedule — it was 25-6 when he played, 3-7 when he didn’t. Then he missed two months due to his left knee injury. The Sixers sank in the standings and, despite Tyrese Maxey and others stepping up, knew their postseason fate would hang on the 7-footer’s availability.

He’s back now and, though he isn’t in peak condition, he did have six games to ramp up for this series. He’s still a load, and the leisurely pace of this series — nine days to play the first four games — will be the best thing short of a spa stay to ease his aches.

New York has its own big man back in Mitchell Robinson. He and Isaiah Hartenstein will do what they can to hold their ground. The Knicks’ best overall defender, OG Anunoby (6-foot-7, 235), will best help elsewhere. So what are they to? Defy the trend in the playoffs and rev up their play. Though New York ranked last in pace, pushing the ball is its best chance of wearing out Embiid. Forcing him to play defense also is key. Then win the minutes he sits.

Keep your eyes on 

The swarm to slow Brunson. There is no “Jalen Brunson stopper” on Philadelphia’s roster (or on most other teams, frankly). But the 76ers have several players who can take turns in the tank against him, throwing different looks and fresher legs at the Knicks’ motor.

Perimeter guys aplenty — from Tyrese Maxey and Kyle Lowry to Kelly Oubre Jr., De’Anthony Melton and Nicolas Batum — can pester him and spread their fouls if all else fails. It’s unlikely they’ll shut him down, but even a little dip in production could throw New York’s offense out of whack.

Brunson averaged 28.7 points and shot 48% overall (and 40% from 3-point range) this season. Against Philadelphia, those numbers drooped to 22.3, 40% and 30%. He’s not on anyone’s Kia MVP ballot at that level.

1 more thing to watch for each team 

For the Knicks: Josh Hart. The Hart the Knicks got against Philadelphia was the best Hart, the guy who averaged 12.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists while playing 39 minutes. He’ll be as essential in this series as in their four regular-season meetings. Get ready for a nosebleed from Hart’s on/off numbers: In the 156 minutes he was on the floor against the 76ers, New York had an 81.5 defensive rating. In the 36 he sat, it was 137.7. Hart’s net rating: 57.7.

For the 76ers: Tobias Harris vs. Nic Batum. Harris, the 76ers’ veteran forward, was at his best this season in the 22 games that Batum, an even more veteran wing, didn’t play: 20.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.8 assists. But Batum, wrapping up his first season in Philadelphia, helped the team go 36-24 when he played, compared to 11-11 otherwise. Batum also was more essential in Philadelphia’s Play-In victory – he scored a season-high 20 points, including 6-for-10 from behind the arc. Harris? Nine points on 4-for-10 shooting.

1 key number to know 

24.5% — According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Knicks took 24.5% of their shots in the last six seconds of the shot clock this season. That was the league’s highest rate by a wide margin … with the Sixers ranking second at 22.6%. Over two series in last year’s playoffs, Philadelphia took an amazing 30.8% of its shots in the last six seconds of the shot clock.

Late-clock shots are, generally, not good shots. As a whole, the league had an effective field goal percentage of just 47.5% in the last six seconds of the shot clock, compared to 55.2% in the middle 12 and 60.8% in the first six.

But the playoffs are typically played at a slower pace than the regular season. In a way, these teams have been playing playoff-style basketball all year and should be comfortable playing late in the clock, though they were both a little below the league average regarding effective field goal percentage in late-clock situations.

We can expect a lot more of those in this series, and the winner could be the team that executes best with little time to spare.

— John Schuhmann

The pick 

Knicks in seven. The casual analysis of New York is that, like every Tom Thibodeau-coached team before this one, it plays harder during the regular season than many opponents. That edge fades when those rivals dial up to playoff intensity and Thibs’ groups seem to lack an extra gear. But with Anunoby to put out fires – they were 20-3 when he played – and Brunson as the little engine that does, the Knicks should be glad they outworked their way to the high seed. Home-court advantage at MSG could make the difference in a series ripe to go the max.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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