Sixers center Joel Embiid dribbles the basketball against New York...

Sixers center Joel Embiid dribbles the basketball against New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein on Friday, Jan. 5, 2024, in Philadelphia. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS) Credit: TNS/Yong Kim / Staff Photographer

GREENBURGH — As the Knicks watched the Philadelphia 76ers earn their way into the playoffs Wednesday night, they saw a laboring Joel Embiid, grasping repeatedly at his surgically repaired left knee, adjusting the brace, struggling with his mobility and his conditioning level in just his sixth game beck.

But as they began their preparation in earnest for the first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, there was little doubt what level of Embiid they were planning to face.

“You prepare for MVP Joel,” said Isaiah Hartenstein, who will be the first into the ring to try to contain last season’s NBA MVP. “You kind of see he’s going through stuff but at the end of the day, it’s kind of what makes athletes special, we can get through a lot. I think even if you watched Jimmy Butler [Wednesday] night, for him to keep on playing, you always got to be prepared for anything. Especially the athletes in the NBA, who can go through a lot of pain and still play. We’re ready for whatever. We’re prepared, and it’s just gonna be a team effort with Joel.”

“Yeah, it’s the playoffs,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “So you’re not dealing with the back-to-backs and that sort of thing. So we’re anticipating him to be who he is.”

Who he is remains the biggest question though as the Knicks and 76ers ready for Saturday’s Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. Is he the 2023 MVP? Is he the player who averaged 34.7 points and 11 rebounds in 39 games this season? Or is he a hobbled version of himself who hurried back after February surgery to repair a torn meniscus?

The Knicks are leaving nothing to chance even though Embiid played only five regular-season games after returning and then the play-in game. He reinjured himself in the second-to-last game of the season and went to the locker room, but returned in the second half.

The plan, at least as much as Thibodeau will give up, is to do it with a team effort. Hartenstein will get the starting assignment and Mitchell Robinson, working his way back from his own injury, will provide a defensive boost off the bench. But it could be OG Anunoby at times if the Knicks play small — or if they feel that Embiid is choosing to hang on the perimeter to protect his still ailing knee. In those five regular-season games after returning Embiid has taken only 24.7% of his shots within 10 feet of the basket. For the season he was at 39.1%. And the 7-footer has not dunked once since he returned.

What he has done, though, is convert 11 of 16 catch-and-shoot threes and then hit two huge ones Wednesday in the comeback.

“Obviously, you’re averaging 34 points a game or 35 points a game, you’re an elite scorer,” Thibodeau said. “And he does it a lot of different ways. So, he can shoot the ball. He can put it on the floor. He can post up. He can offensive rebound. And so, we have to guard him with our team. We got to try to make him work for his points. He’s got to see people, and then we’ll go from there.”

“Just making him uncomfortable,” Hartenstein said. “ . . . I think we do a good job of showing a shell, so a lot of guys kind of loaded up. The main thing is he’s gonna seek fouls. So that’s the main thing, through fouls he’ll get his little breaks, easy free throws. So that’s probably the main focus and go from there.

“Make sure to keep your hands back, knowing at the end of the day that he’s an MVP so there’s going to be some calls that don’t go in your favor . . . it’s really just doing your job, playing team defense, and again, don’t really put your hands in. It’s also smart from him. I’m not saying it’s bad. If he’s smart enough to do it, and we keep doing it, that’s kind of on us.”

Notes & quotes: 76ers backup center Paul Reed, speaking on the “Run It Back” podcast, was asked if Philadelphia wanted to face the Knicks rather than the No. 1 seed Celtics. “Oh man, I feel like we ain’t ducking no smoke, but yeah, we wanted the Knicks matchup, of course,” he said. “That’s the easier team, I guess.”

Hartenstein said, “I think that’s what podcasts kind of do: They just make sure they get you comfortable, and then people just say [expletive] . . . We’re focused on us. Whatever comments they have, they have. We’re focused on our team.”


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