How Knicks can slow down 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey as first-round series continues

Through two hotly contested games, the Knicks are up 2-0 on the Philadelphia76ers in their first-round NBA playoffs matchup, but will need to be better to close out this series. One takeaway from the first two games is how dominant Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey have been for Philly.

Embiid averaged 31.5 points, nine rebounds and six assists despite playing through a knee injury. Maxey is scoring 34 a night, with 5.5 rebounds and seven assists on 64.3 percent shooting from two and 40 percent shooting from three.

While New York has done a great job of limiting their supporting cast, the two Sixers stars are having their way thus far. If the Knicks want to steal a road game and take control of the series, shutting or slowing down one of these two scorers would be an effective way of doing so.

Starting with the big man, New York’s approach so far has been to send help once he’s in the paint or deep in the post. Until then, they’ve been trusting their centers one-on-one to deal with Embiid’s jab steps and jumpers on face-ups.

Mitchell Robinson has fared best in dealing with Embiid’s offense, holding him to 6-for-19 shooting from the field and forcing two turnovers in nine minutes matched up with eachother. The starter, Isaiah Hartenstein, has allowed 13-for-26 shooting in 12 minutes.

If this is a real trend, the Knicks may need to consider matching Robinson’s and Embiid’s minutes more, despite what it could take away from the offense or boards. Robinson’s length has bothered Embiid’s perimeter shooting, and even when being overpowered he’s done a good job of not fouling and continuing to crowd him into the help.

Beyond that, it may not be worth upheaving the defense to better cover Embiid. He’s shooting under 50 percent from the field, looks labored and is mostly scoring on volume and free throws.

The late help ensures he’s not comfortably reading the floor and making smart passes out of the high post. If he’s going to keep sticking you with outside shots there’s not much you can do, and New York has done as well as you can inside with the behemoth.

Maxey may be the bigger question, as his speed separates him from most Knicks defenders -- and he’s cooked in the first two games. The Knicks have thrown a few coverages his way on the pick-and-roll, depending on personnel.

With OG Anunoby on Maxey, Embiid screens are often switched, otherwise the Knicks' big shades his way but ultimately sticks with Embiid. Anybody else screening Maxey is mostly a switch.

New York’s strategy is to put the best defender on Maxey, to hopefully slow him down and then switch onto Embiid if needed, stunting Philly’s favorite pet play. The results have been mixed.

Anunoby’s speed can’t match Maxey’s, and the latter has found open lanes in this matchup. Whether they switch or drop the Embiid screen, even defended well that pick-and-roll often ended in a bucket.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) battles for position against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) during the second half during game two of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden.
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) battles for position against New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) during the second half during game two of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. / Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that Maxey has only attempted five shots in 10 minutes guarded by Anunoby. The bad news is that he made four of them and dished three assists in the process.

New York doesn’t need to abandon its plan, but can mix it up given how others have fared on Maxey and how he’s found such efficient looks. The best statistical matchup clears with the eye test: Deuce McBride.

Maxey is 5-for-12 with two turnovers against McBride in ten minutes of action -- a tremendous defensive job by the young guard. But with him coming off the bench in a reserve role, it’s hard to get him on Maxey more without starting him over Josh Hart or Anunoby.

Hart has been brutal on Maxey, lacking the foot speed to chase him and losing him off-ball at times. Maxey is somehow 8-for-10 from the field with five assists in the three minutes guarded by Hart this series.

Both centers are also unsurprisingly getting torched on those switches, to the tune of 8-for-14 shooting and four assists in three minutes matched up. What is surprising is Jalen Brunson holding Maxey to 1-for-8 shooting.

New York should probably take that with a grain of salt, but it does speak to the trend that a small guard is the best option to put on Maxey if the goal is to limit his scoring. Unfortunately, getting clipped by an Embiid screen or switching onto him blows that configuration up.

If the Knicks can tighten up a couple of things they can likely continue with this mix of coverages. One big factor is picking up Maxey in transition.

As dangerous as he’s been in the halfcourt, Maxey is nearly unstoppable on a fast break or even semi-transition. Whether he scores or not is largely dictated by how quickly the Knicks get a body on him.

Another is forcing him into more deep pull-up jumpers. Maxey has gone 2-for-11 on pull-up threes compared to 6-for-9 on catch-and-shoot attempts.

Anunoby could start going under picks to fill in those paint gaps and test Maxey’s pull-up range. The team as a whole can make a more concerted effort to chase him off the line.

Head coach Tom Thibodeau likely has more up his sleeve. Maybe the Knicks start blitzing his non-Embiid picks to get the ball out of his hands and force Nicolas Batum or Tobias Harris to make a play.

Whatever the adjustments are, the Knicks have proven to be a defensive monster -- just not enough of one to slow either of these two stars down. If they want to secure this series, they’ll need to find a way to make it happen.