Examining the Best First-Round Playoff Matchup for the Knicks

There are a handful of different first round scenarios for the New York Knicks as they brace for the playoffs. Which of them give them the best chance to advance?
New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau observes his team
New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau observes his team / Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

The final week of the 2023-24 NBA season has arrived and while many are watching to see how things pan out with the New York Knicks and their positioning in the Eastern Conference, the one question that lingers is what matchup would be the most preferable for this year’s squad. 

Compared to last season’s appearance, this Knicks team has experienced a bunch of changes and unexpected injuries throughout the course of the season. In January, New York sent two homegrown pieces in RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to Toronto in exchange for defensive backup from OG Anunoby. 

The Knicks have welcomed back Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson, who was out since early December with a broken ankle, to join the trio of Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart in making a valiant push in the postseason. However, they will have to do it without a guy in Julius Randlem, who is averaging 24.0 points and nearly 10 rebounds per game, and with a supporting cast that at times can be feast or famine when they’re needed most. 

In a tightly contested Eastern Conference picture, the Knicks enter the final string of regular season contests in a tie for the third seed with Orlando, who carries the tiebreaker from their head-to-head record. They’re only a game behind the two seed after a big win over Milwaukee on Sunday but just 1.5 games ahead of the sixth spot held by Indiana before the cutoff for the play-in tournament.

With all the pieces they have healthy, the Knicks still have a nice complementary display of high-volume offense and hardnose defense that can stifle opponents with relentless pressure, energy, forced turnovers and transition ability. It’s enough to push through the first round and makenoise if they can land the right matchup, and the most enticing of which feels like the Orlando Magic. 

During the regular season, the Knicks did have one of their unusual struggles against the Magic, losing three of four contests to give Orlando the potential tiebreaker scenario at the end of the week. A series would require the two teams to succumb to No. 4 and 5 in the conference, which is a possibility with their final games against mostly playoff-bound opponents. 

However, when paired in the playoff-type atmosphere, the Knicks are the team with a ton of advantages compared to a Magic squad that hasn’t been there since the 2019 season. The most obvious is that overall experience, as the Knicks are entering their second postseason with many of their current players and the Magic’s group are getting their first,  often pressure filled taste of late April basketball. 

In all four of their matchups this season, New York and Orlando kept each other under 118 points, respectively. That feat was a huge boost for the Magic in the first three meetings when the Knicks were banged up and lacked good production from their second unit. New York flipped the script in game 4 by holding their foe to a season-low 74 points and the defense will be the Knicks’ premium in a best of seven series.

Per Pro Basketball Reference, the Knicks have held one of the toughest defensive units in the entire association, ranking 12th or better in most opponent shooting percentages and off the ball metrics. Most importantly, they’ve held teams to the third-lowest field goals made, the second-lowest attempted and the 12th slated three-pointers allowed.

The Knicks have dominated the glass in the same stretch, posting the top offensive rebounding and eighth total rebounding unit that extends possessions and keeps the rock away from the star players that will attract the shots in these types of matchups. They force the 13th most turnovers at a rate of 12.4 per game and give up the sixth-lowest average personal fouls as well, keeping teams like Orlando off the free throw line and making them hit the tough shots over their duo of big men. 

Both teams have similar offenses in all the same shooting metrics as evidenced by their close matchups and even closer averages of 112.5 to 110.6 average points per game. New York is far superior in the three-point effort thanks to the prowess of Brunson, DiVincenzo, Miles McBride and Bogan Bogdanovic and hold a slight advantage of the overall field goal categories. 

What will boost the Knicks and suffocate the Magic will be the defense that shows up more in the gritty moments, takes away extra opportunities, and won’t make a ton of silly fouls that a young team like Orlando could be susceptible to in high-pressure contests. You could almost call them mirrored reflections of one another and a great example of a 4-5 playoffs matchup, but in the end one should expect the Knicks’ experience to be the ultimate factor, especially if home court goes their way. 

The heavy emphasis would be on slowing down forward Paulo Banchero who leads the Magic in points and assists with 22.6 and 5.3 per game. Limiting his ability to be a facilitator would be critical as well, which will put the pressure on the role players in Franz Wagner, Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony and Wendell Carter Jr to step it up and only one of them in Wagner averages more than 15 points and 5.3 rebounds so far this season.

It’s what the Knicks were able to accomplish in their win over Orlando on March 8th when Banchero and Wagner were the leader scorer and the rest of the team made under 4 shots. It’ll be the streamlined path toward advancing to round two and strengthening their case to hold ground with a tougher opponent like the Bucks or Celtics. 

Thus, while fans will be cheering for the Knicks to sneak into the No. 2 or 3 spot to avoid a potential fate with the Boston Celtics who are destined for conference champion status. Don’t think so fast, if they want to breath the easiest in round one, it wouldn’t hurt to be the fourth team and hope Orlando drops to them in fifth.

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