What is the Knicks' Worst Potential Round 1 Matchup: 76ers or Heat?

The Eastern Conference playoff picture can still be shaped by the final three games of the regular season. Which potential first round matchup gives the most concern for the Knicks?
Mar 10, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts at referee
Mar 10, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau reacts at referee / Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

With three games remaining in the NBA regular season, there are still so many possibilities left to be sorted out in the Eastern Conference picture and the New York Knicks are one team with seeding implications on the line. 

Coming off their second game in five nights with the Chicago Bulls, the Knicks are in a mix of teams in the top six of the conference that could see a shift in postseason placement as final dress rehearsals take their toll. New York sits in third place while the Orlando Magic hold fourth place kudos to their loss to the Rockets on Tuesday. But the Knicks are are only one game behind the Milwaukee Bucks for the two spot that would land them one of the teams coming out of the play-in tournament. 

On the other hand, a few losses down the final stretch could send the Knicks down a few spots and diminish their chances of retaining home-court advantage in the first round. The Cleveland Cavaliers are breathing down their necks (just one game back in the fifth hole) and the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers aren’t too far behind in sixth and seventh place of a tight race. 

Winning the remainder of their contests will certainly help the Knicks avoid their worst possible fate of falling down the standings into road warrior territory. Yet, moving upward could also set up a tricky scenario where the team squares off with either the Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat, the latter being the worst potential matchup to land when it’s all said and done.

Can the Knicks Hang With the Heat?

The Heat are certainly the one team in the eastern field that nobody wants to face if they had a choice and are no stranger to being a scary force for the Knicks. Last year, they rode the backbone of their coaching and team culture to get to the NBA Finals, including knocking off New York in a heated second-round series after starting as the eighth seed in the bracket. 

Based on how the regular season series went, the Knicks might feel more confident that they can handle Miami’s style of play, given it is closely aligned with their own. The two sides always have highly contested battles where baskets come at a premium but with a more prolific offense on the Knicks end it could benefit them in the long run. 

There is also the element of the Heat’s inconsistent play down the stretch which has stemmed from their own injuries to key pieces.

Are the 76ers Back With Embiid?

Meanwhile, the 76ers are starting to round back into winning form as the postseason draws near, feeding off the return of Joel Embiid and the instant all-around boost he brings to their lineup when healthy.

The Knicks dominated the Sixers in three of four meetings this season, including a 128-92 win in the first meeting at Wells Fargo Center where the Knicks just ran the home team out of its building. The next three games saw the Knicks hold Philly to 96 points or less, with the lowest total being 79 points in the last two matchups, one of which the Sixers managed to win in an ugly affair. 

The key factor in those games was the absence of Embiid, who had been dealing with a knee injury that needed work done on it since February 6th. Short of the first meeting with New York, the 76ers were lacking their star who averages 34.8 points, 11 rebounds and 5.6 assists per night with a 56.1% field goal percentage.

Without Embiid, Philadelphia’s statistics would drop significantly and put a majority of the pressure on guard Tyrese Maxey to outperform the competition. The 23-year-old has had an impressive season, with 25.9 points,  6.3 assists per game and a 37% three-point shot. The cast of players around us hasn’t been as efficient and created a new No. 2 difference maker and that has led to the team’s collapse in the second half of the season. 

Now, with the 2023 NBA MVP back in the fold, the 76ers would have an offense that can rely on the heavy production from their two stars. They’ll also earn additional output from guys like Tobias Harris, Kelly Oubre and Buddy Hield, who each average at least 12.2 points and knock down open shots from all over the court. 

Where the Knicks could still have the advantage in the three-point contest with their divisional rival, the 76ers will give New York some fight in the rebounding category. They rank eighth in offensive rebounding—an area the Knicks excel in—and are one of the best at drawing contact down low with their length that isn’t there in the Knicks’ second unit and could pose some trouble. 

Lacking a Julius Randle type player that can body up with an opponent like Embiid in the midrange will be a deficit for the Knicks as well. Much of that role will fall on OG Anunoby when Isaiah Hartenstein or Mitchell Robinson don’t have him in certain sets and even that defensive prowess will have a hard time fully slowing down one of the NBA's most dominant forces.

The Knicks have a very strong defense that could counterpunch the Sixers in a seven game series, especially in the minutes that Embiid and Maxey sit on the sidelines. They rank top-5 in a bunch of categories and have one of the best defensive ratings in the second half of the season, but it’s just tough to have to dance with an experienced playoff squad that now has its health back to give you a more even match on the biggest stage. 

It’s a tough draw between the 76ers and the Heat for that first-round matchup the Knicks should like to avoid, but Philadelphia should take the crown given the star power that is peaking at the right time. 

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