With the Knicks very likely headed to the playoffs, it’s time to take a peek at who they might be facing.
Playoff basketball is very likely to return to Madison Square Garden in 2023 as the New York Knicks sit just a few wins away from clinching a postseason berth. Let us take a moment to digest that, appreciate that. Good. Now, the most important follow-up question: who are they going to face?
There is still time for movement to take place but the fifth seed appears to be the team’s ceiling. The Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics are jockeying for the top of the East, while the Philadelphia 76ers are in the mix but feel like the third banana. That leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers as the last true “elite” as well as the Knicks.
Much to the surprise of just about everyone, the Knicks are not a flash in the plan — they are a good basketball team. It seems silly to call a team that will now make the playoffs in two of the last three seasons a surprise, but this year’s Knicks did creep up on you like the 2020-21 Knicks.
This year is much easier to explain. Jalen Brunson was severely underestimated. His $104 million contract went from a punch line to one of the best contracts in the league. Brunson has been the steady hand to complement the powerful, yet erratic, Julius Randle. Brunson assuming control of playmaking duties freed Randle up to focus on everything else, which proved to be a godsend as Randle returned to his 2020-21 version.
Randle has a chance to set the record for most three-pointers made in a season in franchise history, just a year after the record was broken. He’s averaging a career-best 25.4 points per game and was named to his second All-Star team.
Brunson is in the Most Improved Player discussion, averaging 23.8 points per game and dishing a career-best 6.2 assists per game. He has become the team’s closer and is the unofficial captain of the team despite arriving this season.
The partnership with Brunson has bloomed into an unlikely, deadly combination. It has had a chain reaction within the team. Immanuel Quickley’s breakout season finally arrived. He has anchored the second unit, filled in beautifully for Brunson when called on, and is a legitimate contender for the Sixth Man of the Year award. RJ Barrett has had a letdown season but has shown signs late in the season of returning to the upward rise he ended last season on.
While there is still time for some chairs to move around, New York can start thinking of possible playoff opponents. Tom Thibodeau has had this team practicing for the playoffs since November when he went to a nine-man rotation, but now comes the real thing. There are no easy opponents. However, the Knicks have a good shot to win their first playoff series in ten years. Here are the opponents the team would least like to face, ranked from toughest to most manageable.
This matchup, only possible if the Knicks are successful in the first round, would feel a lot more like punishment. Since LeBron James left his throne atop the East, it felt like it was meant for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The brief Brooklyn Nets super team, the poor health of his number-two Khris Middleton, and now the emergence of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston, have kept Giannis from the throne — but he’s tirelessly working his way back.
With Middleton working his way back for help now, though, and Giannis scoring at the highest levels he ever has, the Bucks are a nightmare matchup. They are battle tested. Jrue Holiday is capable of corralling Jalen Brunson, and just as capable of giving Brunson headaches on offense.
Even if Middleton is not back to the level he was at during the Bucks’ title run, there is no perfect foil to stop Giannis. Julius Randle will have his hands full the entire series, and it is ambitious to believe he can outlast Giannis.
The Bucks have flexed their superiority with a clean 3-0 record this season. Both Brunson and Randle would have their hands full with Giannis and Holiday, respectively.
It would take a miracle — RJ Barrett turning into 2009 LeBron, for example — for the Knicks to beat a Bucks team at full strength. This would be a series where dragging it to six or seven games could feel like a moral victory.
On paper, it would seem like the Knicks should welcome a matchup with their division rivals. The Knicks won the season series 3-1, with a clean 3-0 since the calendar turned over to 2023. In their first meeting, the Celtics torched the Knicks to the tune of a near-record 27 three-pointers (two shy of the Milwaukee Bucks’ record of 29 set in 2020).
In the final matchup of the season, it was the Immanuel Quickley game.
The playoffs are a different beast than the regular season — a beast these Celtics are very familiar with. Tatum and Brown are very battle-tested despite their youth. Robert Williams has always given the Knicks fits scoring at the rim, and Marcus Smart has always been a thorn in the side, always seeming to go 2-for-8, but with two of those shots coming in crucial moments.
Boston could be the deepest team in the East. Malcolm Brogdon, a Sixth Man of the Year contender, leads an impressive supporting cast that also features an improving Derrick White, veteran pillar Al Horford and Swiss army knife Grant Williams.
The Celtics have plenty of bodies to throw the Knicks’ way and unlike in the regular season, this could create an issue for Brunson. If Brunson were to have success against Smart, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla can swap Brown on him, and if that fails, White or Tatum can take a try, and so on. The versatility of the Celtics will expose the Knicks’ weakness in hitting shots consistently.
Barrett would be the x-factor in a potential matchup. He has hit big shots against the Celtics early in his career, but the ask would be much bigger here. Barrett will have to take serious attention to draw Brown or Tatum full-time, which ensures they stay off Brunson or Randle.
If Barrett steps up his game to the consistent tertiary option he has been in the second half of the season, the Knicks could make this a fight. But in the end, there is no answer for Tatum and when he Brown hot, there is not really an answer for him, either.
The combination of versatility at the guard and wing spots, plus the playoff experience, would make the Celtics one of the tougher draws.
It would be quite difficult to determine this is a lost season with an early exit. Still, being eliminated by Donovan Mitchell would be a gut punch. The Knicks hold the season series lead at 2-1 with one more game left to play. Mitchell was the catalyst behind the sole Cavalier win, going off for 38 points, including a hot 8-for-13 from beyond the arc. The other two matchups have been rock fights but the Knicks prevailed through.
The Cavaliers will get their first look at the post-deadline Knicks but still do represent a tough adversary in a seven-game series. They are tough down low with Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen. They have a rising star at point guard in Darius Garland, who is shooting a career-high 41.4%, and once again averaging 20 points per game. Coming off the bench, there is Caris LeVert and Ricky Rubio. Then there is Mitchell.
This is a winnable series to be sure, but far from an easy one. The hope would be that Jalen Brunson replicates his playoff success versus Mitchell. When both players met up in different uniforms last April, it was Brunson who emerged victorious, sustaining 30-point outings from Mitchell.
The difference this time is Mitchell is on a better team and Brunson does not have Luka Dončić waiting in the wings (yet). He has Julius Randle. How Randle performs determines how far the Knicks will go in the postseason. In this series in particular, he would have to bully the young and talented Evan Mobley, who will be playing in his first seven games series.
Where the Knicks could win is in the margins. Josh Hart lives in the margins. The main thing he has brought to the bench mob, and closing lineup, are the hustle plays. Hart has created countless second chances with his hustle. He and Immanuel Quickley have to dominate their minutes and hope the starters play the Cavs’ starters to a draw at the least.
In the end, it should come down to big shot-making. Unlike the other top teams in the East, the Knicks would not have to deal with an MVP candidate, although the Cavaliers can argue to be the most solid of the bunch.
Brunson has gone blow for blow with Mitchell before, he just needs a strong number two. That is what makes Randle such an X-factor in this series, more than any other. If he replicates what he has done in the regular season, the Knicks could celebrate their first playoff series win in a decade. If he goes cold as he did versus Atlanta in round one, the Knicks could be in some trouble.
This feels like a trap. How the hell can the team with the league’s (likely) Most Valuable Player be the easiest opponent? Perhaps it is because of the man who coaches him.
Although Joel Embiid is an unstoppable force of nature, the 76ers give off this vibe of a team that could collapse like a deck of cards out of nowhere. James Harden may be off to Houston in July, a Christmas Day rumor that can gain momentum with an unexpected early exit.
There is familiarity on the benches. Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers are close friends, with Thibodeau serving as an associate head coach for Rivers in Boston for three years. These two know what the other wants to do, and how to stop. And lucky for the Knicks, they have one of the centers that can at least slow Embiid down.
A disciplined Mitchell Robinson is Philadelphia’s worst nightmare. There is no stopping Embiid, but Robinson has the length and defensive chops to irritate Embiid. Robinson appeared in two of the four meetings, not having a meaningful impact in either. Still, he has the skill to hang with Embiid. As for Harden, that assignment is tougher.
The task will likely fall to Quentin Grimes. Thibodeau has groomed Grimes all season with trial by fire. He’s matched up with top options all season and has the size to hang with Harden. Tobias Harris has the potential to score in bunches but will have trouble slowing down Julius Randle. Another strong scorer, Tyrese Maxey, is also a questionable defender.
The two teams played to a 2-2 draw during the season, a good chunk with Robinson not available. A strong series from him or Grimes, who would likely draw Harden, can force friction and make it believable for the Sixers to fall. Talent-wise, the Sixers have the lion’s share and it would be an uphill battle. But the Knicks have proven they could hang.
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