Knicks’ Hustle and Depth Shines as Sixers Miss Game 1 Opportunity

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The Philadelphia 76ers’ best chance to get past the New York Knicks in the first round of the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs is probably to force other Knicks besides New York’s top star Jalen Brunson to try to beat them.

If Brunson is leading the way (as he usually does) with other Knicks chipping in, it will likely be a short series. However, if Brunson is mostly kept in check as he was during the Game 1 meeting between New York and Philadelphia at Madison Square Garden on Saturday evening, the seventh-seeded 76ers may still have a decent prospect of pulling off a series upset over the second-seeded Knicks.

That’s where Philadelphia may have missed a big chance as the series got underway with a 111-104 Knicks win and a 1-0 New York series lead.

Although Bruson recorded a team-best seven assists and ultimately tied forward Josh Hart for the team scoring high with 22 points, he struggled to get there on dismal 8-of-26 shooting (including 1-of-6 from 3-point range) while committing a game-high five turnovers.

From that standpoint, the 76ers did exactly what they hoped to do. But the Knicks’ bench, Hart’s surprisingly good long-distance shooting down the stretch and New York continuing to show why it’s the league’s best offensive rebounding team were the difference in overcoming a game-high 33 points (on solid 14-for-26 shooting) from guard Tyese Maxey, a key 18 points (on 5-for-9 shooting, including 4-for-7 from behind the arc) from veteran guard Kyle Lowry and 29 points and eight rebounds from limited star center Joel Embiid, who while still dealing with fully recovering from February left knee surgery, was held to almost as inefficient shooting as Brunson, going just 8-for-22 (including 2-for-8 from 3-point range).

After Philadelphia jumped out to an 18-7 lead near the midpoint of the opening quarter and led by as much as 32-19 with 1:14 left in the period, New York turned to its bench to storm back with a dominant 33-12 second quarter that ended with a 58-46 halftime lead for the Knicks.

Brunson’s backup, Miles “Deuce” McBride played so well in the period, the Garden crowd chanted “Deuuuuuce!” rather than the “M!V!P!” chants that are normally showered upon Brunson as the 23-year-old, third-year, second-round draft pick playing the first meaningful playoff minutes of his NBA career singlehandedly outscored the 76ers in the quarter with 13 points while going 3-for-4 from 3 and 4-for-7 overall in the frame. Finishing the game with 21 points, McBride also added five more points in the final quarter to help stave off Philadelphia. His driving layup with 8:25 left broke the game’s final tie and put New York ahead for good, 86-84.

The Knicks led by as much as 14 early in the third quarter before the 76ers took an 82-79 lead entering the final period following a 34-17 run that was keyed by 12 points each from Lowry and Maxey.

But New York turned the tide again in the final quarter, outscoring Philadelphia, 32-22.

While each of the Knicks’ starters ranged from -3 to -23 while on the floor, New York’s three reserves — McBride (plus-37), forward Bojan Bogdanovic (13 points, seven rebounds, plus-27), and center Mitchell Robinson (eight points, 12 rebounds, plus-20) — recorded the game’s three-highest plus-minus numbers.

“They played phenomenal from the start to finish,” Brunson said. “Whenever they were in, they made plays — a credit to them for their preparation.”

Head coach Thom Thibodeau added, “We need everyone. Tonight, it was the bench. You gotta win games different ways.”

Depth isn’t always limited to the bench. Sometimes, it’s getting starting production in unexpected but much-needed ways, like Hart’s pivotal 13 fourth-quarter points on 3-for-4 shooting from behind the arc plus 4-for-4 free throw shooting. Hart’s four 3-pointers in the game (on eight attempts) were a season high, with the last three being the difference between leading or trailing in the series before Game 2 at MSG on Monday night.

After struggling with his shot for most of the contest (starting just 2-for-9 overall and 1-for-5 from 3-point range), Hart made his final three shoots, all from behind the arc, over the final 5:08, with the game hanging in the balance.

The first of those gave the Knicks a 94-90 lead off a McBride assist. The next one doubled New York’s three-point lead to 101-95 with 1:55 left, and the last — off another McBride assist — put the game away, making it 107-100 with exactly a minute remaining.

Hart’s heroics were a credit to his continued work and to make Philadelphia pay for backing off of him and leaving him open — something Hart expected from the teams’ regular season meetings earlier this year, and something that was working out well for the 76ers for much of Game 1. Only a 31 percent 3-point shooter this season, Hart acknowledged that letting him shoot from deep was “a good gameplan” for Philadelphia. Until it wasn’t.

“This whole week was just getting up shots, pre-practice, post-practice,” Hart said. “Going back at night, just getting up shots, getting up reps. So, I knew it was going to be that way. Open shots. Fortunately, I was able to knock them down… I didn’t lose that confidence. I just kept firing.”

Even with Hart’s clutch late performance and his teammates’ bench help, New York would have still likely come up short if not for the Knicks’ all-out hustle on the offensive glass, where the team that led the NBA with 12.7 offensive boards per game continually made the 76ers work extra defensively by holding a sizeable 23-9 edge in offensive rebounds, which keyed a decided 26-8 advantage in second-chance points.

Robinson led in that area with seven offensive boards, followed by five each for starting center Isaiah Hartenstein and Bruson, and four for Hart (who pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds overall).

That’s a skill, being able to offensive rebound,” Maxey noted. “They know when guys like Brunson [are] going to shoot the ball and Harstenstein, Mitch, those guys know where to crash and know how [Brunson] misses.”

Whether it was Hart late, the Knicks’ bench, or New York’s offensive rebounding, it wasn’t what many expected — Brunson’s usual efficient scoring and playmaking carrying the Knicks the way the first-time NBA All-Star this year normally has since New York lost its other All-Star, forward Julius Randle, for the season to a shoulder injury in late January.

Hart summarized, “When your top dog is not playing well — not shooting well, I didn’t want to say not playing well — you need other guys to pick it up for him, and that’s what we did.”

Allowing Brunson’s teammates to do that is something Philadelphia may regret later if the 76ers don’t make up for a lost opportunity.

About the Author

Jon Wagner

Jon has been a credentialed writer with New York Sports Day since 2009, primarily covering the New York Knicks and Hofstra men's basketball. He has also occasionally covered other college basketball and New York's pro teams including the Mets, Giants, Jets, Islanders, Rangers and Cosmos (including their three most recent championship seasons).Jon is former Yahoo Sports contributor who previously covered various sports for the Queens Ledger. He's a proud alum of Hofstra University and the Connecticut School of Broadcasting (which he attended on a full scholarship).He remains convinced to this day that John Starks would have won the Knicks a championship in 1994 had Hakeem Olajuwon not blocked Starks' shot in Game 6 of the 1994 NBA Finals.

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