NBA Playoffs

Sixers gear up to guard Brunson, embrace the Garden's wildness

The Sixers will start their postseason series against the Knicks on Saturday night.

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The Sixers’ highest-stakes game yet in enemy territory is set for Saturday night.

They’ll begin their first-round playoff series against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

As Kelly Oubre Jr. knows, that’s a unique scene. 

“The fans are pretty crazy,” Oubre said Friday. “They have a 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 that’s what they do. It’s going to be super fun and I look forward to it. It’s one of my favorite places to play.”

Regardless of who precisely is in attendance (or how they got their seats), the Garden atmosphere indeed adds to the intrigue of a rare Sixers-Knicks postseason encounter. 

The teams haven’t crossed paths in the playoffs since 1989 and the Sixers’ last postseason win at the Garden was 41 years ago. While that’s before any current Sixers player was born, everyone has their own understanding of the Garden’s mystique. 

“That’s lit, man,” Cameron Payne said. “As soon as I heard we were playing the Knicks, I just thought about Space Jam. I thought about Patrick Ewing, I thought about (Michael) Jordan. There’s been some really iconic battles in the Garden.

“It’s cool. Normally, you just play there one time a year or twice a year. Now we’re there every day? That’s going to be some good basketball being played. It’s going to be fun.”

On the court itself, defending All-Star Knicks guard Jalen Brunson will be a grueling, tricky task.

Since the Sixers limited Brunson to 39 points over their March mini-series split against the Knicks, he’s scored at least 40 in a game on six occasions. Overall, Brunson averaged 28.7 points, 6.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds this season. He also set new career highs in three-point volume and free throw volume, shot 40.1 percent behind the arc, and led New York to a 50-win season. 

“He’s a great player,” Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said. “We’re going to try to make him work. We’ve got a lot of guys that will probably end up spending time on him and guarding him. Obviously, we’ve done a few different things with him through the course of the year — a lot of different schemes and stuff that we’ve got ready to go. … The guy’s had an unbelievable season. He’s had some really unbelievable games. 

“And he does it in a lot of ways. He’s going to just score, right? And he’s going to hit the three-ball, he’s going to draw fouls, he’s going to be out there the whole game. … He’s a superstar in this league, and we’ve got to get our guys ready to guard him.”

Brunson was exceptionally crafty as a two-time national champion at Villanova, where he showed an advanced feel for shielding off defenders, pivoting into slivers of space, and hitting tough shots in congested areas.

He’s stepped into a No. 1 star’s role with the Knicks and kept on developing his game.

“When he first got in the league, he was just scoring and you really didn’t know what he was capable of,” Payne said, “because he was playing with Luka (Doncic). So he never really took off how he is right now. 

“But now, man, he has the full platter. He’s got everything, and he’s added getting to the line at a great rate. So we’ve definitely got to find a way to not keep him on the line and to guard without fouling.”

The Sixers won’t have De’Anthony Melton (back injury recovery) and Robert Covington (left knee bone bruise) as defensive options against Brunson. Joel Embiid (left knee injury recovery) has been listed as questionable for the past couple of weeks. He played 38 minutes Wednesday in the Sixers’ play-in tournament win over the Heat.

Melton put up three-point shots following the Sixers’ practice Friday.

“I wouldn’t rule him out for the whole series just yet; the series is going to be long,” Nurse said. “But he didn’t practice today and he’s not playing tomorrow.”

Without Melton, the Sixers will presumably have Oubre, Kyle Lowry and Nicolas Batum be among their stable of defenders on Brunson.

The Garden and all its mayhem await. 

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