Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) goes up with the floater...

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) goes up with the floater against Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) in the third quarter in Game 1 of an NBA playoff first round, Saturday. April 20, 2024, in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

In one corner, we have a monster of a man. Joel Embiid is a 7-foot, 280-pound freight train who can dribble and shoot like a guard. When the 76ers’ big man is healthy and on his game, he is the most difficult player to defend in the NBA.

In the other is the most unlikely of superstars. Jalen Brunson’s jaw-dropping rise from second-round pick to the fourth-leading scorer in the league this season has happened by sheer force of will. He is the rare point guard who averages more than 28 points a game.

The two biggest stars on the court at Madison Square Garden on Saturday for Game 1 of the Knicks-76ers first-round playoff series have very little in common. Very little, except for one important thing: Each is trying to push his franchise into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in more than two decades.

One game in, it’s advantage Brunson, as the Knicks earned a 111-104 win over the 76ers on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

The Knicks survived a subpar shooting performance from Brunson, who led them with 22 points (tied for team high with Josh Hart) despite shooting 8-for-26. The 76ers lost but survived a near disaster as Embiid, who scored 29 points (Tyrese Maxey had 33 for Philadelphia), briefly looked as if he had reinjured his left knee in the second quarter.

Philadelphia, which beat Miami in a play-in, was supposed to be the worst of all possible matchups for the second-seeded Knicks. The 76ers had spent the first half of the season among the Eastern Conference leaders and were in third place when Embiid suffered a meniscus tear in a game against Golden State on Jan. 30.

Embiid missed 30 games after having surgery but returned last month to push his team into the playoffs. The 76ers were 31-8 with him on the floor in the regular season, which included winning all five games in which he played after coming back from the injury.

Yet it was clear Saturday that Embiid still is not at 100%. In the second quarter of what looked to be a dominating performance — including scoring his team’s first nine points — he threw an alley-oop to himself off the backboard, came down awkwardly and crumpled to the floor.

After writhing and clutching his surgically repaired knee for several minutes, Embiid was helped up and off the court with 2:37 left in the half.

You could almost hear a gasp from the crowd when he returned to start the third quarter, and the Knicks themselves looked somewhat shocked that he was back on the floor. They were outscored 36-21 in the quarter as the 76ers took an 82-79 lead.

Still, Embiid was not moving with the same kind of authority. After scoring 18 points and grabbing five rebounds before the second-quarter injury, he had 11 points and three rebounds in the second half.

You can bet that Embiid will be listed as questionable for Game 2, because that was his status for this game until the last moment.

“I think he’s really a warrior and he’s battling and I think he absolutely wants to play, but we’ll see how he turns out here tonight,” 76ers coach Nick Nurse said.

Embiid and the 76ers have an immense amount of pressure on them this year. Despite having the type of player that some thought would make them a contender for years, the 76ers have had three different coaches in the Embiid era, which has produced five second-round exits.

The Knicks, meanwhile, have gotten to the second round of the playoffs only twice in the last 20 years. It was Brunson, in his first season with the Knicks, who led them there last year. Miami won that series in six, and Brunson conceded before Saturday’s game that he still is haunted by the turnover he had at the end of Game 6.

Although the Knicks are without Julius Randle, Brunson may have a better team with which to make a deep playoff run this year because, unlike last year, everyone who is playing is fairly healthy. With Brunson being double-teamed, his teammates — particularly Hart and Deuce McBride — stepped up and made huge shots down the stretch.

Considering the fact that Milwaukee could be without Giannis Antetokounmpo and Indiana has had its struggles, the winner of this series will be the favorite to get to the Eastern Conference finals. Right now, however, no one on the Knicks is admitting to thinking that far ahead.

“This isn’t close to being over. We can’t be complacent,” Brunson said. “Just happy we got the win today.”


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