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Sixers set bright-light sights on Knicks … and celebs, too

CAMDEN, N.J.  — When the play-in dust settled the seventh-seeded Sixers wound up favored over the New York Knicks, the Eastern Conference’s second seed, in their first-round best-of-7 playoff series that begins Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN) at Madison Square Garden.

Mildly surprising, considering the Knicks claimed a 3-1 edge in the season series. Beyond that is the gut feeling among Sixers players that if you must open the playoffs on the road there is nothing like starting at the Garden. Legends are made there. They also attend the games. From Ben Stiller to Anne Hathaway, Jerry Seinfeld to Queen Latifah, you never know who will show up courtside on Celebrity Row … other than Knicks season ticket holder Spike Lee.

“That is lit, man,” Sixers guard Cameron Payne said. “As soon as I heard we were playing the Knicks I thought about (the movie) Space Jam, I thought about Patrick Ewing, I thought about Michael Jordan. There have been some really iconic battles in the Garden. It’s cool. Normally you play there one time, maybe twice a year. To play there every day, that’s going to be some good basketball.”

Sixers center Joel Embiid didn’t play in three of those regular season games with the Knicks, and it showed. With a 34.7-point scoring average, Embiid would have ranked second in the league had he played enough games.

Knicks guard Jalen Brunson, who sparked Villanova to a couple of NCAA tournament championships, was fourth in the league in scoring averaging 28.7 points to go with 6.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds. Guard Tyrese Maxey was 11th in scoring with a 23.7-point average.

Josh Hart and Dominic DiVincenzo, also products of Nova, are in the starting lineup for the Knicks.

The last time the Sixers and Knicks met in the playoffs was 1989, the Knicks sweeping the Sixers, 3-0, and celebrating it with brooms, no less, on the floor of the now demolished Spectrum. Charles Barkley was the star of the Sixers, Patrick Ewing with the Knicks. The coaches were Rick Pitino and Jimmy Lynam. For Millennials and Gen Zers, gasoline was $1.06 a gallon.

Rest assured the Knicks will have their hands full with Embiid, who paced himself through the Sixers’ 105-104 play-in victory over the Miami Heat. There is no way that Isaiah Hartenstine (7-0, 250), OG Anunoby (6-7, 232) or Precious Achiuwa (6-8, 225) match up with him. Had Embiid not missed 29 straight games after undergoing meniscus surgery, the Sixers probably would have been the second seed.

What’s clear now is Embiid still isn’t 100 percent after the procedure, but the supporting cast with Maxey, Kelly Oubre, Kyle Lowry and lately Nico Batum, have carried the day. With Embiid, they closed the victory over the Heat, pretty much playing error-free in the final minute. Sixers coach Nick Nurse swears that Tobias Harris still is part of the late mix, and that the forward wasn’t on the floor late because his tank was on empty.

Then there is Brunson. It’s going to take a group effort to defend him, and Nurse wouldn’t rule out using De’Anthony Melton (back) at some point in the series, just not the first game. Melton was airing shots out at the end of the shootaround Friday.

“We’re going to try to make him work,” Nurse said. “A lot of guys will probably end up guarding him. We’ve got to be ready. The guy’s had an unbelievable season and some really unbelievable games and he does it in a lot of ways. He’s going to just score, hit the three-ball, he’s going to draw fouls. And be out there the whole game. He’s a superstar in this league.”

The Knicks pound the offensive glass and will play a special brand of defense under coach Tom Thibideau, who overloads a side of the floor to build almost a firewall.

The Sixers have the momentum, basically winning a playoff game by making plays down the homestretch in a crazy atmosphere at Wells Fargo Center. The Garden is going to be a lot like that and considering the celebrity star power, possibly more.

“The fans are pretty crazy,” Oubre said. “They have this really good culture of being wild and loving basketball to the root and the core of it. They call it the Mecca of basketball for a reason. The lights are super bright. They’re going to give celebrities those $100,000 free tickets just to be there and not care about the game. But you know, that’s what they do. It’s going to be super fun and I look forward to it. That’s one of my favorite places to play.”

No one is going to enjoy the atmosphere more than Payne, who, if he’s draining three-pointers vowed not to make faces at Spike a la Reggie Miller back in the day, but rather, relish the moment.

“Hopefully I’ll be making threes and I’ll get to skipping in the Garden,” Payne said. “That’s always fun. Or a backwards backpedal down the court. I’m going to have fun.”

• • •

The Series Call >> The Sixers won just one of four games in the season series versus the Knicks, and that was at Madison Square Garden. Joel Embiid didn’t play in that game, nor two others, which were both losses. Though Embiid still is not all the way back from meniscus surgery, the Sixers are favored by 2.5 points in the first game by sports book and according to FanDuel, the likely pick to win in six games.

Barring injury, there is almost no way this game doesn’t go the distance. The Knicks are full of energy, the Sixers full of scorers, and just to make it interesting older players. Embiid is 30, Tobias Harris 31, Kyle Lowry 38, Kelly Oubre 28, Nico Batum 35.

The home court won’t weigh as heavily in this seven-game series as the Knicks’ younger legs, and they have enough stamina and skill to send it to a Game 7. That said, a Sixers team that does things the hard way will have the Knicks right where they want them.

Take the Sixers in seven games.

Source: Berkshire mont

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