Why the Sixers have no chance to beat the Knicks in the NBA playoffs

The Philadelphia 76ers have been all the rage since their win over the Miami Heat in the first Play-In Tournament game. Pundits and diehards alike have been gassing them up as one of the most dangerous seven seeds in recent memory.

Joel Embiid’s reemergence post-meniscus surgery has spawned eternal confidence, yet Philadelphia isn’t getting the same guy who was the frontrunner for a second MVP. There is no hyperbaric chamber they can throw him in prior to their series against the New York Knicks.

So while Philadelphia may be favored in some corners to win the series or make it far more competitive than your average 2-7 playoff matchup — our friends over at DraftKings, for example, have the two sides with even, -110 odds to win — there are three distinct reasons why that shouldn’t be the case.

Kevin Love bullied Joel Embiid on Wednesday night

As the 76ers climbed all the way back to defeat the Heat, Embiid looked terrible. Not only was he not his usual self, but a 35-year-old Kevin Love absolutely gave him the business.

Embiid shot 1-4 when guarded by Love and turned the ball over twice. On one of Philadelphia’s final possessions of the first quarter, Embiid couldn’t even get into position to catch the ball because Love was overpowering and outpositioning him.

Love is listed at 6’8, 215 lbs, and is coming off a season where he played the fewest minutes of his career.

The New York Knicks have Isaiah Hartenstein.

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Hartenstein has a legitimate case to make an All-Defensive Team this year. The 25-year-old big man is listed at seven-foot, 250 lbs, and just played more minutes than ever this season, filling in for an injured Mitchell Robinson.

Of the 131 players who guarded at least 1000 shots in the restricted area this year, Hartenstein held opponents to the second-lowest field goal percentage in the league (60.7%). He was tied with Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert — the favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.

Embiid only played in one game against the Knicks this year, and it was before he got hurt. In that game, Hartenstein guarded him for 9:06 of game time. No other Knicks player guarded him for more than a minute.

The reigning MVP shot 9-21 and turned the ball over five times.

From the display we got in the first Play-In game, it’s abundantly clear that Embiid is not himself. He’s not the MVP frontrunner that dominated the league for half the season. But Philadelphia can’t time travel back to that part of the year. They have to play this Knicks team right now, with this version of Embiid.

And this version of Embiid could barely move an aging Love. Hartenstein is going to take his lunch money and laugh in his face while he does it.

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid cannot guard Jalen Brunson

Jalen Brunson just wrapped up one of the best Knicks seasons in decades. He had more win shares (11.2) than any Knick since Stephon Marbury in 2005 (11.7), and that team missed the playoffs. Anthony Mason’s (11.3) Knicks in 1996 were an above .500 squad, but that team also won fewer games than this year’s group (47).

You have to go all the way back to Patrick Ewing in 1994 to find a Knick who had more win shares (13.1) on a team with more wins (57) than Brunson this season.

That New York squad made it to the Finals.

But what makes Brunson so special is not just his scoring, it’s how he gets the job done. And the way he does it will make life hell for the 76ers.

Brunson had more pick-and-rolls than any other ballhandler in the league this year (809). Of the 74 players who ran at least 200 pick-and-rolls — a quarter of the possessions Brunson had — he ranked ninth in points per possession (1.05), 10th in score frequency (47.5%), and 20th in effective field goal percentage (53.1%).

Philadelphia’s likely starting lineup heading into the series consists of Tyrese Maxey, Kyle Lowry, Kelly Oubre Jr., Tobias Harris, and Embiid. While Lowry showed some great grit against the Heat, Brunson is a different animal than anyone Miami could throw at him. Oubre was actually Brunson’s primary defender for most of the season, and he did well. Brunson shot just 5-16 from the field with Oubre guarding him but nailed four of his nine triples. That’s the 76ers’ answer, right?

Not if Tom Thibodeau has anything to say about it.

In a setting like the playoffs, where games get refined and the best players see their minutes, touches, and shot attempts increase, New York isn’t going to let Philadelphia get whatever matchup they want.

If Oubre sticks to Brunson, Hartenstein will be there to screen. If Philadelphia tries to pre-switch, Thibodeau will scheme to avoid it. If Oubre fights over the screen, Brunson can drive, and if he goes under, he’ll get an open three.

Oubre could end up being a bit of an X-factor in this series, but the Knicks are going to attack Philadelhpia’s weak points every chance they get.

Maxey, on the other hand, got absolutely burned. Brunson shot 5-7 in the regular season with Maxey guarding him, including 5-6 from inside the arc. Meanwhile, Brunson shot 3-6 with Embiid on him.

Obviously, the fact that Embiid only played one game against the Knicks this season needs to be taken into account. The sample size here is tiny either way. But the results were what they were, and are worth noting.

When the Knicks have Brunson and Hartenstein running the pick-and-roll, Embiid almost always plays drop defense. This gives Brunson far too much room to work.

In that game, Philadelphia tested out different guys against Brunson (one of which was Jaden Springer, who is no longer on the team). Nicolas Batum wasn’t quite quick enough.

When New York got the switch they wanted, and Maxey was on Brunson, he couldn’t keep up.

And even when Embiid steps up to guard Brunson a bit higher up the floor, Brunson still finds a way to get around the seven-foot behemoth.

But there is one more important distinction here — Brunson burned even the healthy, more mobile version of Embiid, but that’s not who will be guarding Brunson in the pick-and-roll.

This version will be…

As the 76ers were battling back against the Heat in the third quarter, Embiid looked brutal. Jimmy Butler missed a corner three but got another chance on the wing, and the 76ers star doesn’t even attempt to close out.

He sees Butler, makes a half-hearted attempt to get out and defend, and ends up looking like a guy who tried to run the Boston Marathon without any training.

Through no fault of his own, Embiid isn’t himself. That’s just the reality of the situation.

Making matters worse, he also has a history of getting gassed in the fourth quarter. Now, coming off meniscus surgery earlier in the season, Thibodeau is going to get him in as many pick-and-roll situations as he can against Brunson. Add in the fact that Maxey will almost certainly be on the floor, and Brunson should absolutely cook Philadelphia.

NBA: New York Knicks at Philadelphia 76ers

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Jalen Brunson is ready to outshine Joel Embiid

Playoff series come down to star players. The game slows down, every possession means more, and offenses get more and more concentrated. The best players are going to have the ball in their hands at every turn, doing the same exact thing.

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray pick-and-rolls will increase tenfold as the reigning champions spam their go-to cheat code as they look to defend their title.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drives will become even more common as the Converse-donning superstar looks to weave through opposing defenses who know what’s coming but have yet to find an answer.

Luka Doncic pick-and-rolls will go through the roof as the Dallas Mavericks try to space the floor both vertically and horizontally, giving the Slovenian superstar open lobs and shooters to work dish to.

For the Knicks, it will be Brunson in the pick-and-roll. Bone-crunching Hartenstein screens paired with the elusive drive-and-step-back game of one of the league’s slipperiest guards.

And for the 76ers, it will be Embiid in the post. A back-to-the-basket, power-driven mindset that could be tamed by his lingering meniscus issue that clearly hasn’t subsided fully.

But how has each player fared in the postseason?

Embiid is 27-26 all-time in the playoffs. Just one game above .500. Meanwhile, Brunson hasn’t appeared in nearly as many games. He only has 36 playoff games under his belt.

Yet his winning percentage is on par with Embiid’s at 18-18.

And before the “he had Luka Doncic” crowd comes rolling in, Brunson was a driving force in the Dallas Mavericks’ 2022 run to the Western Conference finals.

The two players also have fairly similar postseason stats in terms of scoring and efficiency:

Embiid: 24.0 points, 16.6 FGA, 3.5 3PA, 46.1% FG, 28.0% 3PT

Brunson: 20.8 points, 16.3 FGA, 4.7 3PA, 46.8% 3PT, 34.5% 3PT

Embiid’s playoff history speaks for itself, and not in a good way. Meanwhile, Brunson is ready for his second playoff run as a true No. 1 with his own team. And last year, he helped his squad upset the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round.

Philadelphia 76ers v New York Knicks

Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

As the Knicks pour more and more of their offense into Brunson against a team with no single-guy answers to stopping him, the 76ers will be relying on Embiid, who looked like a shell of his MVP self in Wednesday’s play-in.

Then there’s the defensive pressure OG Anunoby, Josh Hart, and Donte DiVincenzo will put on Maxey. The offensive rebounding New York possesses with Hart, Hartenstein, and Robinson. The lack of true scoring options the 76ers possess outside of Embiid and Maxey.

Nicolas Batum had to score 20 points for the 76ers to limp past a one-legged Butler, and a Heat team that couldn’t find their footing on offense for most of the game.

Batum only cracked the 10-point mark seven times during the regular season.


Embiid isn’t fully healthy. That’s obvious. Yes, he played well at the end of the fourth quarter in that game, but New York isn’t going to shoot as poorly as the Heat did in the Play-In. Especially not over the course of a seven-game series.

Philadelphia likely won’t, either, but Butler and Embiid were both injured for most of the game on Wednesday. In this series, Embiid isn’t at full strength, and Brunson is.

Are there other factors that will go into this series? Absolutely. Three-point variance. The Knicks’ lack of shot creation outside of Brunson. Maxey’s ability to attack Brunson on offense. Embiid’s dominance when at his best.

But at the end of the day, Embiid clearly doesn’t look healthy, Hartenstein is an elite post defender, Brunson is dominant in the pick-and-roll, and Embiid’s playoff resume is shaky at best.

Those are the main reasons why Philadelphia’s season ends with a trip to Madison Square Garden.

So, Knicks fans shouldn’t just feel good about this series. They should be feeling invincible.

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