As the 2022-2023 National Basketball Association (NBA) regular season came to a close on Sunday, the playoff picture has finally been set in stone. The No. 5 New York Knicks will face the No. 4 Cleveland Cavaliers, while the No. 6 Brooklyn Nets will face their Atlantic Division-rival, the No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers.
For the Knicks, this will be their second playoff appearance under head coach Tom Thibodeau, having lost in the first round of the 2021 playoffs to the Atlanta Hawks. The biggest question mark for New York in this series will be the health status of All-Star forward Julius Randle. Randle has been sidelined since March 29 with a sprained left ankle, and has progressed out of a walking boot as of Sunday.
Even if Randle is available for the Knicks, Cleveland is an incredibly tough first-round matchup. Led by their two All-Star guards in Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland, the Cavs have become one of the best two-way teams in the NBA. They allow the fewest points per game (PPG) in the league, and have the second highest average margin of victory in the league, only trailing the Boston Celtics.
The key for New York will be whether or not guards Jalen Brunson and RJ Barrett can play to their full potential. Since coming over from the Dallas Mavericks, Brunson has played at an All-Star level, but has missed time recently due to a foot injury. Barrett has shown flashes of who he can be after being drafted third overall in 2019, but has never been a consistent scoring option.
For New York, Thibodeau will have to focus on staying out of the paint and away from Cleveland’s two headed monster frontcourt in Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. Brunson and sixth-man Immanuel Quickley will need to shoot better than they did in the regular season on a higher volume, and fifth-year center Mitchell Robinson will have to do his best in containing Allen and Mobley.
Though many are not expecting the Knicks to pull out a series win, there is a chance they fight their way to the second round since they did take three out of four games from the Cavs in the regular season. Either way, an electric atmosphere will fill Madison Square Garden.
As for Brooklyn, the Nets have a much tougher task in the form of Philadelphia. First and foremost, the 76ers have the league-MVP favorite in Joel Embiid, as well as the NBA-leader in assists, James Harden.
Philadelphia had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference after the All-Star break, trailing only the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks. The matchup everyone will be focused on is between Embiid and breakout center Nicolas Claxton. Claxton is widely considered one of the favorites for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, and has held his own against Embiid in their most recent matchups.
Another thing Brooklyn has going is the fact that the 76ers shoot, by far, the most free throws in the league. It’s no secret that in the playoffs, referees call fewer fouls and let the pace of the game dictate the physicality. If this holds true in next week’s series, Brooklyn will certainly have an opportunity to compete with Philadelphia.
Finally, as 76ers coach Doc Rivers said in his postgame interview on Sunday, the playoffs are where stars are born, and the Nets have a budding superstar in Mikal Bridges. Bridges has been one of the best players in the league since being acquired from Phoenix in February, averaging 26.1 PPG on an insane 60.7% true shooting. If Brooklyn is able to pull off the upset, Bridges will have to play up to the status of superstar.
As the playoffs begin on Saturday, both New York City-based teams will have their sights set on upsets.
Featured photo courtesy of @nyknicks, Instagram