Tuesday, May 21 2024

13 thoughts and tidbits on Sixers-Knicks 1st-round series originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

For the seventh consecutive season, the Sixers have earned a trip to the playoffs.

With Game 1 of their first-round series against the Knicks on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, let’s run through 13 thoughts and tidbits on the matchup:

1. Counting the Sixers’ play-in tournament victory Wednesday vs. the Heat, Joel Embiid has played just six games since returning from his left meniscus injury.

When he’s feeling good, the reigning MVP often tends to look unstoppable. Still, the Knicks appear relatively well-equipped to guard him. Isaiah Hartenstein is a high-level defender. Mitchell Robinson — also recently back from a long-term injury absence — is an outstanding shot blocker. Precious Achiuwa and OG Anunoby know all about guarding Embiid from their Raptors days with current Sixers head coach Nick Nurse.

Of course, all schemes against Embiid involve multiple defenders. Embiid will need to be wary of the Knicks’ wings and forwards — Josh Hart, Anunoby, Donte DiVincenzo — lurking in gaps, ready to pounce.

Though decisive attacks are usually effective for Embiid, he may sometimes be able to get good shots through patience. When Anunoby didn’t commit to a full-on dig at Embiid on the play below, the seven-time All-Star slid over to the left side of the floor, created more of a true 1-on-1 situation, and sunk a comfortable mid-range jumper.

As long as Embiid is aware of all the potential help defenders around him, there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of cat-and-mouse moments.

2. Paint catches for Embiid are always welcome.

As Nicolas Batum himself said, he can’t be expected to replicate his 20-point performance against Miami every game. However, elite entry passing is one of his many non-scoring tools.

It’s not unusual for the Sixers’ basic Horns duck-in play to set Embiid up near the hoop.

Simplicity can be a valid counter at times to the Knicks’ maximum-effort, tough, gritty style.

3. Embiid’s one outing vs. New York this season came in a 36-point loss back on Jan. 5. Tyrese Maxey’s track record against the Knicks is also not especially telling.

Maxey was sidelined by a concussion for the extremely low-scoring opener of the Sixers’ March mini-series at Madison Square Garden. And though he returned two days later, Maxey’s conditioning was well under 100 percent.

Zooming out, we think it’s reasonable to assume this series will test the All-Star guard’s improvement at maintaining his aggression through rough patches and adjusting when whistles don’t go his way.

“I had to talk to him a lot tonight about attacking more, driving more,” Nurse said Wednesday after the Sixers’ play-in win. “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.”

4. The Sixers will want Maxey to accelerate downhill when the Knicks’ big men play drop coverage and their guards fall behind plays.

The occasional stack pick-and-roll might be worthwhile, too. If adding a third player to the mix leads to any defensive confusion or hesitation, that clearly boosts Maxey’s chances of reaching the rim.

Batum was that third man in the Jan. 5 play above, setting a back screen on Hartenstein. Now, the Sixers also have Kyle Lowry’s screening ability to call upon in those actions. Buddy Hield’s ghost screens are in their arsenal as well.

5. Like Embiid, Knicks star Jalen Brunson will see a variety of defensive coverages.

Kelly Oubre Jr. will surely be part of the Sixers’ plan. Oubre spent more time guarding Brunson this season than he did any other player.

That’s mainly because he was good at it. According to NBA.com’s tracking, Brunson scored 17 points on 5-for-16 shooting with eight assists and four turnovers when Oubre defended him.

Oubre’s agility and length (wingspan a shade over 7-foot-2) are assets vs. the 6-foot-2 Brunson. He’s capable of chewing up space to effectively contest — and even block — jumpers.

Against Brunson, it’s important to avoid overzealous plays. He’ll draw fouls on reckless or sloppy closeouts. Brunson will make difficult shots, but solid defense works just fine.

6. When the Knicks see the Sixers switching one through four, they may very well set ball screens for Brunson to create better matchups.

Naturally, Brunson’s game will grow more physical against fellow point guards.

In general, the Knicks don’t mind a physical contest whatsoever.

“The game is based on physicality,” Oubre said Friday. “And you have to be smart, too. So keeping our brains intact while we’re being physical and playing football-like basketball. I think it’ll be the better team with the highest IQ who can make changes and counter the aggression … they’re going to be the (winners).

“But at the end of the day, Coach Nurse is a wizard when it comes to understanding game plans and getting us ready to play. So I’m going to just listen to whatever he has to say and go out and do it.”

7. The Knicks led the NBA this year in offensive rebounding rate, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, the Sixers ranked 26th in defensive rebounding rate.

The Sixers know they can’t let the Knicks be dominant in that department.

“I think that certainly it’s a stylistic characteristic of them,” Nurse said. “They really hit the glass. They’ve got a lot of size, strength, and athleticism. … We’ve got to block out, right? They go in there, they’re physical, they throw you around a lot.

“Hopefully, some of that stuff will get called. It’s not just a total shoving match in there. You do have rights when you’re blocking out and hopefully we get some of those. But yeah, it’s going to be one of the keys to this series for sure.”

Hard-crashing Knicks like Hart will be eager to punish any ball watching.

8. Oubre hasn’t played in the postseason since 2018. For Buddy Hield, this playoff series will be the first of his NBA career.

“I think it’s a blessing,” the 31-year-old shooting guard said. “Thank God for the opportunity. … With the trade, seeing Indiana making it, my old team in Sacramento making (the play-in), I just felt like, ’S—, when is my time?’ Just got to be patient, and I was patient about it. And I feel like once you get over that hump, everything starts falling where it’s supposed to be.

“I’m just glad. I’m excited, man. I’m excited for these guys, I’m excited for the coaching staff that we have. To be in Philadelphia, first time making the playoffs, it’s a blessing. It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done.”

9. Tobias Harris scored a season-low two points in the Sixers’ March 12 loss to New York.

Across four games against the Knicks, Harris averaged 6.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists. He shot 11 for 35 from the floor and 2 for 11 from three-point range.

10. Barring incredible brilliance defensively, that sort of production from Harris would not merit heavy minutes.

Nurse’s decision to close without Harris in the play-in tournament suggests the veteran forward won’t be an automatic member of late-game lineups.

“I think that any one of those six, seven (players) maybe, it could end up that way,” Nurse said Friday. “I really thought that the other night it just ended that way. I thought Tobias played so hard, but he kind of 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.’ Then that group managed to play well together.

“A lot of that is just kind of feel of what’s going on, and I imagine that’s going to stay the same. Even with Kyle, it was like, ‘Should we get Kyle back in or not?’ It was a tricky one. And we did, and he made a couple great plays. I think it’s always six, seven guys down the stretch, depending on who we need at both ends of the floor.”

11. If both the Sixers and Knicks begin with their expected lineups, 40 percent of the starters will be former Villanova Wildcats — Brunson, Hart, DiVincenzo and Lowry.

12. The Knicks’ playoff roster has two former Sixers in Alec Burks and Shake Milton. No current Sixers player has ever suited up for the Knicks.

13. The last time the Sixers beat the Knicks in a playoff series, Moses Malone averaged 31.3 points and 15.5 rebounds.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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