Knicks prove themselves a class above Joel Embiid-less 76ers in season series-clinching rout

NEW YORK — Fans in attendance at Madison Square Garden rose to their feet and cheered as backup Knicks point guard Miles “Deuce” McBride held the ball at half-court while the game clock ticked down toward zero.

Only this moment didn’t happen at the end of regulation.

The applause occurred at the bottom of the third quarter.

Three quarters were all the Knicks needed to send an emphatic message after an embarrassing performance at Madison Square Garden generated just 73 points in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday.

This time, the Knicks scored their 74th point with five minutes left in the third quarter.

This time was more in line with the first two meetings of the season series: lopsided Knicks victories Philadelphia head coach Nick Nurse used as motivation the morning his Sixers beat the Knicks in a stinker at The Garden on Sunday.

The Sixers believed they sent a message on Sunday night.

On Tuesday, the Knicks responded — loud and clear.

The Knicks secured the season series over the 76ers, 3-1, with a wire-to-wire 106-79 blowout victory over an Eastern Conference Atlantic Division foe and potential first-round playoff opponent.

The Knicks impressively held the Sixers to 79 points two games in a row.

Both the Sixers and Knicks are severely shorthanded, but key players returned to each team’s rotation on Tuesday.

For the Knicks, OG Anunoby rejoined the team after early February right elbow surgery to play his first game since Jan. 27.

And the Sixers welcomed back All-Star guard Tyrese Maxey, who missed a handful of games in the NBA’s concussion protocol before returning to action at The Garden on Tuesday.

Both the Knicks and Sixers continue to miss star power in the second half of the season: Julius Randle (dislocated right shoulder) and Mitchell Robinson (left ankle surgery) for New York; MVP center Joel Embiid (meniscus), scoring guard De’Anthony Melton and three-and-D wing Robert Covington for Philadelphia.

Ahead of tipoff, the Knicks were just a game ahead of the Sixers in the standings, sitting fourth in the East versus sixth for Philadelphia.

The 76ers now sit seventh in the East with the Indiana Pacers jumping to sixth place after a Tuesday night victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What was expected to be a potential No. 4 vs. No. 5 first-round playoff preview was instead a showcase between two teams of different classes.

That’s what the Sixers are, in a class beneath the Knicks — at least until Embiid can return from his meniscus injury to his dominant interior form leading into the playoffs.

The Knicks have won their three games against the Sixers by a combined margin of 77 points while only losing once by only six.

“All of us in this four-to-eight range [in the standings] are trying to get sixth, fifth or fourth to get out of the one-game danger zone (Play-In Tournament),” Nurse said ahead of tipoff on Tuesday. “Anything can happen. I guess it’s a couple games if you finish a certain place.

“They’re missing super key pieces. We’re missing super key pieces. It’s where we both are. We’ve gotta fight it out. We’ll probably be better when we get our guys back.”

Anunoby played in 29 minutes in his return to the floor and shot 6-of-11 from the field for 14 points on the night. Josh Hart triple-doubled with 20 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists on 8-of-16 shooting from the field in 38 minutes, and Jalen Brunson bounced back from a 6-of-16 shooting performance on Sunday to score 20 points in 27 minutes on 7-of-12 shooting from the field.

In Anunoby’s return, Precious Achiuwa came off the bench and posted 11 points and seven rebounds in 22 minutes of play.

And while the Knicks scored 36 more than they did in Sunday’s clunkfest, it was the Sixers who couldn’t generate more offense even with Maxey back in the rotation.

Philadelphia’s All-Star guard scored 17 points but shot just 6-of-14 from the field in 28 minutes of play.

It was as textbook a performance as the Knicks could have asked for: After shooting 9-of-40 from deep on Sunday, the Knicks converted on 14-of-40 attempts from deep on Tuesday. They outrebounded the Sixers 51-31 and held Philly to just 37.5 percent shooting from the field and 24.2 percent shooting from downtown as a team.

The win was much-needed for a Knicks team losing 10 of its previous 18 games entering Tuesday’s game.

It also gave the Knicks a clean runway as they embark on a tough four-game West Coast road trip which caps with three games against Western Conference playoff opponents.

First it’s the rebuilding Portland Trail Blazers. Then a Sacramento Kings team led by De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. Then it’s Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, followed by the reigning champion Denver Nuggets, led by MVP center Nikola Jokic.

With only 17 games remaining on the schedule, and in an Eastern Conference where only 2.5 games separate the fourth seed from the eighth, the Knicks need every win they can get.

It’s clear with Anunoby back, New York’s odds at winning drastically increase — and Anunoby is only one of the three front court starters who missed time for the Knicks due to injury.