The Knicks' Jalen Brunson, left, gets past the 76ers' Joel...

The Knicks' Jalen Brunson, left, gets past the 76ers' Joel Embiid during the first half of an NBA game on Jan. 5 in Philadelphia. Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

1. Can Brunson be the brightest star?

Who would have predicted that Jalen Brunson could be a more valuable piece in this series than Joel Embiid? But measure the ascension of Brunson, who now could be a top-five finisher in the MVP voting, against Embiid being hobbled once again. Embiid has returned from surgery to repair a meniscus tear just two months ago, playing in five of the last seven regular-season games — and then 38 minutes in the play-in win over Miami on Wednesday night, but he is clearly not 100%. Brunson had the better season than the defending MVP and is entering the series at full strength.

2. Speaking of Embiid

The Knicks will certainly have a game plan to stop Embiid and will need to figure out just how he’s playing to do it. Against Miami he mostly stuck around the three-point line and the Heat, with their zone defense, allowed him to walk into a pair of three-point field goals while Philadelphia was mounting a second-half comeback. While he may be more of a perimeter threat, even hobbled he’s a good one. He shot 48.1% from three-point range in the five regular-season games he returned for late in the season. So do the Knicks have Isaiah Hartenstein leave their preferred spot under the rim to pursue him or do the Knicks opt to use someone like OG Anunoby on the perimeter against him?

3. Life without Randle

The Knicks have managed to get through the final months of the season without Julius Randle and the decision to opt for shoulder surgery has removed any mystery of if or when he will return. While the Knicks went 21-15 after his shoulder injury and won their last five games to secure the second seed, there likely will still come a time when the defense on Brunson is swarming and the secondary offensive weapons aren’t hitting. Finding offense in the brief Brunson rest periods or if the three-point shots aren’t falling is a huge challenge without Randle attracting double-teams and opening up opportunities for others.

4. The Anunoby Effect

The 20-3 record the Knicks have posted with Anunoby in the lineup might tell you all you need to know about his impact on the franchise, but there is much more to it than just a number. Anunoby is still finding his chemistry with the team, often playing on instinct offensively as he learns the patterns of the Knicks' offense and teammates learn about him. But from the midseason trade that brought him to New York and finding his way after the long absence following elbow surgery, he has managed to find the proper cuts and relocations to create openings for his teammates and himself. Defensively, he has needed little time to open eyes wide with his ability to guard anyone from point guards to centers and provide help for teammates while keeping his assignment within sight and breaking up plays with deflections at crucial times.

5. Who are the X-factors?

For the 76ers, few — any? — would have expected Nic Batum to break out with a 20-point performance in the play-in win over Miami after he hadn’t done that all season. But he played a huge role in the win, Likewise, while the attention on the Knicks is focused on Brunson and his ridiculous offensive performances, the Knicks will need someone else to rise to the occasion when Brunson is double-teamed or not on the floor. Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo have excelled at playing off of Brunson this season, DiVincenzo with a steady diet of three-point field goals and Hart by finding seams in the defense to provide Brunson with an outlet. But the Knicks might find help from unlikely spots. Miles McBride has excelled as a three-point shooter off the bench, but he also could prove valuable for the skill that got him into the rotation, his end-to-end defensive prowess. McBride might be the Knicks' best match defensively to slow Tyrese Maxey. Add in Bojan Bogdanovic, who is a potent scorer and has begun to find his rhythm in the limited bench minutes.


Steve Popper

Knicks in 6: It might have been hard to imagine at the start of the season that the Knicks would come in as the second seed while the 76ers had to fight through a play-in game to get the seventh seed, but the Knicks have opened eyes over the course of the 82-game season that this is no illusion. They have a legitimate star in Jalen Brunson, an experienced coach in Tom Thibodeau and a deep and tough roster while the 76ers arrive dependent on a star who is clearly not 100%.

Barbara Barker

Knicks in 6: Las Vegas may not like the Knicks, but they have been defying the odds all season as they nabbed the No. 2 seed despite missing multiple starters. The key will be containing Joel Embiid, who is still a load even though he isn't moving all that well.

Evan Barnes

Knicks in 6: How will the Knicks stop Joel Embiid? That’s the 76ers’ biggest matchup advantage as Embiid could dominate the physical but overmatched Knicks bigs. Embiid is also dealing with a knee injury so how much will that affect his production? Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Maxey might cancel each other out in terms of lead guard impact. But the difference will come down to depth. If Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo have the impact they had in the regular season, it’ll be enough for the Knicks to advance.


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