With Game 1 in the 2024 playoffs fast approaching, 76ers beat writer Sam DiGiovanni helps break down the series to come.

Tonight’s the night. 

The battle of “Jalen” and Goliath, as the New York Post asserts, is going down at Madison Square Garden tonight as Game 1 of the New York Knicks’ series against the Philadelphia 76ers opens up. 

During the regular season, the Knicks went 3-1 against the Sixers – blowing the team out in two of those contests and with one featuring a healthy Joel Embiid on the court. Health has been a big factor in both clubs’ success, though, and Philadelphia will be looking to “upset” New York as the 7 seed facing off with the 2 seed with Embiid back in action alongside Tyrese Maxey. 

For the Knicks, they’ll try to keep chugging along despite losing Julius Randle for the year. Despite that big loss on offense, they finally have a healthy OG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson to anchor themselves defensively, which will be important against such a successful post player in Embiid and with a crafty guard like Maxey on the floor. 

At The Knicks Wall, we are not necessarily experts on the Sixers as we really only take a closer look at the team when the Knicks are playing them. Thankfully, we were able to get an insider’s perspective on the team from a former TKW contributor, Sam DiGiovanni. who is currently the 76ers beat reporter with ClutchPoints. 

DiGiovanni dove into the Sixers’ play-in game versus the Miami Heat, who he thinks will make the biggest impact against the Knicks, and his general outlook on this series. Take a look at our Q&A with him ahead of the game this evening.

1. After their play-in game, are you sold on the impact of the 76ers’ role players in this postseason? Specifically, speak about Nic Batum’s explosion in this game and your feelings on his ability to perform to that same level in this playoffs.

Batum was nothing short of brilliant in that play-in game. He recognized what his team needed to win and did just that. Remember how much Knicks fans disliked the French role players that suited up for New York over the past few years? The inverse is happening with the Sixers. Philly has loved the Batum experience.

Although Batum himself said he doesn’t anticipate another scoring explosion like that, he’s going to remain super important for the Sixers. I anticipate that he and Kyle Lowry will be the most impactful for Philly because they’re each smart and versatile on both ends of the floor. The rest of the crew all bring something different and valuable to the table, though they can be pretty hit or miss.

Tobias Harris is going to get a good amount of minutes each game as a starting forward but can often shy away from making the plays the Sixers need him to on either end. Specifically against the Knicks this year, he has been rough, averaging just 6.3 points per game. Kelly Oubre Jr. is sort of an inverse of Harris; what he lacks in polish he makes up for in confidence and eye-popping athleticism. That could mean an efficient 20-point game or a 4-13 shooting night.

Off the bench, aside from Batum, I think Cam Payne could play a role. He plays really hard and has the skill to be a great offensive spark, though because he’s a small and skinny guard, he might be a target on defense. Buddy Hield is a great shooter but I question his ability to stay on the floor for long stretches given his shortcomings on the defensive end.

I think the Knicks’ supporting cast around their two stars (though they will be without one) is better than that of the Sixers around their stars. But, for the most part, Philly’s role players fit pretty well around Embiid and should be good enough to make this series highly competitive.

2. Tyrese Maxey versus Jalen Brunson may end up being the premier matchup in this series despite there being a healthy Joel Embiid to also look forward to. What have you seen from Maxey that you think can be a detriment to the Knicks, and what would you like to see him improve upon when facing off with a defense like the Knicks’ defense?

I think Maxey is much more equipped to create for himself and others, a major reason for his growth this season. His ball-handling is much better and he can finish at the rim in a variety of creative, difficult-to-master ways. Plus, he’s still a good shooter from deep and is incredibly fast. When he gets going, he can be very hard to stop.

As far as facing the Knicks’ defense, Maxey has to improve at taking advantage of the spacing his scoring gravity will create. Whether that’s attacking quickly or passing the ball to a teammate right as he gets doubled, he has to make quick decisions. For as talented as he is, he can still be somewhat passive at times. That was a primary reason why the Heat’s zone defense bogged him down in the play-in.

Nick Nurse must have said the word “aggressive” at least a dozen times this season when referring to how Maxey has to play. He has to put pressure on the Knicks’ defense and prevent it from happening in the other direction.

3. Kyle Lowry is a known pest on defense, and he and Batum have tended to hit Brunson with double teams throughout the season to try and contain him offensively. Do you see Philadelphia going back to that method of defending him, or would you rather see a different scheme?

The Sixers beat the Knicks once this season, and it came in unlikely fashion: without Embiid or Maxey in a game at MSG. They pulled it off by making it as hard as possible for Brunson to navigate the floor with the ball. I don’t think that’s going to change at all.

I would be shocked if the Sixers don’t bring their bigs up to the level of screens to deter Brunson’s pull-up shooting and send multiple players at him from time to time. While I would guess that Lowry is his primary defender — I could also see it being Oubre, and for Batum to guard him when neither are playing — I think the Sixers will switch 1-4 to make sure someone is always in front of him.

Brunson would be guarded aggressively even if he wasn’t overwhelmingly the biggest source of offensive creation for the Knicks. But because he is, I think Nurse is gonna throw everything and the kitchen sink at him trying to slow him down.

4. The Knicks blew out the 76ers this season with Embiid on the court – can you speak to the difference between how the team was operating at that point of the season in January compared to how they’re finding success now?

Here are the four players Philly played the most off the bench in that game and where they are now: Patrick Beverley (main rotation player on the Milwaukee Bucks), Marcus Morris Sr. (bench player on the Cleveland Cavaliers), Jaden Springer (deep on the Boston Celtics bench) and Danuel House Jr. (salary dumped at the trade deadline, bought out and did not sign anywhere else).

Lowry, Hield, and Payne each have skill sets that are more valuable for the playoffs. Moving off of those aforementioned players gave Ricky Council IV an opportunity to play and he immediately looked impressive. The Sixers simply have a better roster right now.

Another key difference between then and now is that Maxey had an extended run as the top option during Embiid’s injury recovery process. Maxey said that it exposed him to more, tougher defensive coverages. Iron certainly sharpened iron during those two months, a silver lining to the Sixers sliding down the standings.

5. Are there any Knicks players you think can give Embiid trouble in the post outside of Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson? Do you think that the Knicks’ big depth is enough to handle him this series?

For me, it’s less about what the Knicks centers can do and more about how Tom Thibodeau deploys his wings to help on Embiid.

I do think that Hartenstein and Robinson have the size to give Embiid a fight but they’re not gonna be trying to stop him one-on-one, and nor should they. Leaving Embiid on an island is just begging for him to bury his opponent with pull-up jumpers, layups, and free throws. I expect the Knicks to throw multiple defenders his way on just about every possession.

Once a protege under Nurse, OG Anunoby strikes me as someone who could really make things tough for the Sixers. A long, defensive-minded wing like that could really disrupt Embiid when he’s trying to size up his defender. Not only is there Anunoby but also Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo, and even Bojan Bogdanovic to provide some size from the wing position. 

Embiid gets doubled a lot. But he doesn’t always get doubled by defenders as aggressive and tenacious as the ones the Knicks do. 

7. Give a prediction for which player you believe will have the biggest impact on Philadelphia’s success in this series.

Everything starts and ends with Embiid. He’s the focal point on offense and pretty much everything they do on defense is predicated around his rim protection. The Sixers are going nowhere if he’s not on his game. 

I know that’s pretty obvious (as is saying Maxey) so I’ll say Batum. 

While there is perhaps a hint of recency bias after his heroic game, he is the Sixers’ most dependable wing and they’re in a series with a Murderers’ Row of great role players at the wing position. Maxey can exchange enough blows with Brunson and Embiid should get his. But as I mentioned previously, New York’s supporting cast appears to be stronger. Batum can tip the balances Philly’s way.

Batum’s long arms give him the ability to tap out offensive rebounds back to the perimeter, shoot comfortably over defenders and knock away the opponent’s passes and shots. Lowry can do those things but at his height (plus being a few years older), he may have it harder than Batum to remain impactful over the course of a series. 

Batum’s defense is going to be huge in this series, too. The Sixers are going to have to be physical and adaptable, two things the veteran forward should be good for. His defensive versatility — he’s guarded players as big as Wemby and as small as Trae Young — is a huge plus for the Sixers that I expect Nurse to tap into a lot.

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