2024 NBA Playoffs: 76ers-Knicks First Round Series Preview

2024 NBA Playoffs: 76ers-Knicks First Round Series Preview New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) dribbles in front of Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With their play-in win over the Miami Heat, the Philadelphia 76ers got exactly the matchup they wanted in the first round. They will face off against the New York Knicks, beginning on Saturday at 6 p.m. If they make it deep enough into the playoffs, they will not have to face the Boston Celtics until the Eastern Conference finals.

For a rivalry as deep as the one between the Sixers and Knicks, the two teams have not matched up very much in the postseason. The last time they faced each other in the playoffs was back in 1989. The atmosphere is sure to be electric throughout this series.

There is a ton to dive into about the matchup between the Sixers and Knicks. The following is a detailed preview of the series, including a few key things to watch.

Team Stats:



Record 47-35 50-32
OFF RTG (points per 100 possessions) 116.2 (14th) 117.3 (7th)
DEF RTG (points allowed per 100 possessions) 113.0 (11th) 112.4 (9th)
Field Goal Percentage 46.4 (23rd) 46.5 (20th)
3-Point Percentage 36.3 (18th) 36.9 (14th)
Offensive Rebounding Percentage 29.2 (10th) 33.3 (1st)
Pace 98.17 (18th) 95.96 (30th)

For a matchup that occurred four times in the regular season, there is not much to take away. The Knicks won three of the four matchups, although Joel Embiid played in only one of those contests. The result in that lone matchup? The Sixers were blown out 128-92 back on Jan. 5.

On paper, these two teams match up well against each other. With a healthy Embiid, the Sixers have a better offense (122.4 offensive rating). Both teams play strong defense, although the Knicks have an edge in one key area that can potentially swing the series. New York dominates the glass, particularly on the offensive boards (more on this below).

Jalen Brunson is the Knicks’ go-to player offensively. He turned into a bonafide star player this season, averaging 28.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. However, his numbers against the Sixers are mostly below his season averages. In four games, Brunson averaged 22.3 points, 3.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists per contest. Kelly Oubre Jr. was the Sixers’ primary defender against Brunson, and he generally fared well. Brunson was limited to 17 points on 5-of-16 shooting in possessions where Oubre defended him. The Sixers are going to throw a lot of bodies at Brunson, with Oubre undoubtedly being among them.

Things to Watch:

Embiid’s health and how it impacts his performance

Embiid, when fully healthy, would be the X-factor for the Sixers against the Knicks. However, judging from the way he looked against the Heat on Wednesday he clearly is not anywhere near 100%. The big fella was seen multiple times both before and during the game adjusting the knee brace he had on his surgically repaired left knee. His play for much of the game against Miami left a lot to be desired. He came into the fourth quarter with just 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting. Miami’s tough zone defense played a role in Embiid’s down night. He also is clearly still battling through either the knee injury or getting his conditioning levels back up.

After struggling through the first three quarters, Embiid was able to get hot when it mattered most. He scored 11 points in the fourth quarter in addition to making a key pass that set up Oubre for a crucial bucket in the final minute. Embiid managed to make enough plays to swing the game in the Sixers’ direction.

One of the things to monitor throughout this series is the impact Embiid’s health has on his overall performance. The Knicks’ big man rotation consists of Isaiah Hartenstein, Mitchell Robinson and some occasional small-ball lineups with Precious Achiuwa at center. Embiid typically would be able to feast against any of those big men. However, will he be physically capable of dominating these one-on-one matchups? Either way, the Knicks are going to shade extra defenders at Embiid’s direction on a routine basis. His decision making and passing are both going to get tested consistently by the Knicks defense.

Embiid’s ability to round back into form throughout the series is going to play a major role in deciding who comes out on top. If he continues to look like he did against Miami, the Sixers will be in trouble. If he gets his legs under him and returns to his typical MVP-level play, the Sixers stand a good chance at moving on to the next round.

Nurse should experiment with different lineup combinations

Ever since being acquired a few weeks after the trade deadline, Kyle Lowry has cemented himself in the starting lineup. In addition to providing a veteran presence on the floor, he averaged 8.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game. He also shot 40.4% from beyond the arc on nearly four attempts per contest. While Lowry has been solid as a starter, he might see his role change in this series.

The Knicks are one of the best rebounding teams in the league. They are fifth in rebounds per game (45.2), first in offensive rebounding percentage (33.3) and sixth in defensive rebounding percentage (72.9). One of the Knicks’ top rebounders is guard Josh Hart, who grabs 8.3 boards per game. The Sixers comparatively rank 20th in rebounds per game (43.0), 10th in offensive rebounding percentage (29.2) and 25th in defensive rebounding percentage (70.1).

In order to match New York’s size and physicality, the Sixers should experiment by changing up their starting lineup. The way to do that is through moving Lowry to the bench in exchange for Nic Batum. A starting lineup with all of Batum, Oubre and Tobias Harris should match up better physically against the Knicks starting five. If the Sixers are going to beat the Knicks, they will need to find a way to slow down New York on the glass. Lowry should still see significant minutes in this series, but the matchup is better with him coming off the bench.

One of the other ways head coach Nick Nurse can experiment with different lineups is by changing who he has on the floor to close out games. He already showed a willingness to experiment by not having Harris in the game for the final 4:12 of action in the play-in game against Miami. Nurse spoke to reporters after Friday’s practice, detailing his reasoning behind not closing with Harris on the floor.

“I really thought that the other night it just ended that way,” Nurse said, via Paul Hudrick of Liberty Ballers. “I thought Tobias played so hard, but he kinda got to ‘E’ on the tank. We had him in a long time for some matchup reasons and we just couldn’t seem to get him out of there. They had their guy in, too, and I thought, ‘Man, he really needed a rest.'”

While Nurse could be telling the truth about Harris being fatigued, most fans and analysts are not buying it. Harris was having a bad game that included air-balling a pair of 3-pointers. The Sixers have enough depth where they do not need to keep riding Harris late in games if he is having an off night. Batum, Oubre, Lowry and Buddy Hield are all potential players who could close out games. Nurse’s willingness to experiment with who ends games based on matchups and game flow could prove to be critical at some point in this series.

Will Maxey bounce back from tough game against Miami?

The Heat’s zone defense threw a wrench into the Sixers’ offense in the play-in game. Tyrese Maxey was one of the players who struggled the most against the zone. His decision making was poor and he committed three turnovers. Miami effectively shut out the driving lanes and aggressively pressured the ball above the 3-point line. Maxey finished the game with 19 points on 6-of-16 shooting.

Fortunately for Maxey and the Sixers, the Knicks do not play much (if any) zone defense. However, they still play with a ton of physicality on the defensive end of the floor. The Knicks are likely going to hedge against the pick-and-roll in an effort to prevent Maxey from having the space to launch a lot of 3-pointers. The pick-and-roll will still be a prominent piece of the Sixers’ offense. The Knicks are going to force Maxey to make quick decisions between throwing a pass along the perimeter, shooting a pull-up jumper or driving to the basket. Maxey’s decision making will need to be dialed in throughout this series.

Maxey also needs to consistently look to attack. One of the things that was disappointing from his performance against Miami was his indecisiveness after getting off to a slow start.

“I had to talk to him a lot tonight about attacking more, driving more,” Nurse said Wednesday after the Sixers’ play-in win, via Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “When guys are picking him up in the backcourt, going around them — and just keep on going. As great of a defender as Jimmy Butler is, I said, ‘He’s not as fast as you, man. Just turn on the jets and try to go around him a few times.’ I think he did midway through the third (quarter) on, but I thought he was a little passive for a good part of the game.”

Maxey needs to play through any rough patches he might have against the Knicks’ physical, aggressive defense. He has shown throughout this season the ability to find success against whatever the defense is throwing at him. That trend will have to continue in order for the Sixers to stand a shot at winning this series.

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