Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

This New York Knicks-Philadephia 76ers playoff matchup isn’t your typical rivalry series. Even with Philly backup center Paul Reed’s adorable attempts at trash talk and calling the Knicks “the easier team,” this one feels different.

It isn’t because the Knicks dominated the Sixers in the season series and won three of four. Nor is it reigning MVP Joel Embiid’s shaky knees. This could be a rare reversal of the usual underdog Knicks being picked on by big bad Philadelphia. Jalen Brunson & Co. enter the playoffs as the No. 2 seed, while the Sixers settled for No. 7.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what makes the series intriguing. The New York Knicks are the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, all set to play No. 7 Philadelphia at Madison Square Garden in Saturday’s Game 1. And yet, the Knicks’ Brunson-led core all made their bones playing for Villanova in the City of Brotherly Love.

Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, and Donte DiVincenzo. An old Villanova core that has taken these Knicks by storm and gotten the team this far without star big man Julius Randle. Will that follow them into the playoffs against the Sixers’ superior size?

Key Storyline: Will Jalen or Joel rule the court? A tale of two cities and two MVPs. Two cities whose teams, much like Dickens’ London and Paris, only know two ways: The best of times and worst of times. The Sixers have largely found their stride again, while the Knicks are only just getting back in contention after 20 years of bad basketball. All eyes will be on New York’s star point guard Jalen Brunson and Philadelphia’s star center Embiid.

Brunson had a career season and should be a serious MVP candidate, if not the outright winner. Embiid only just came back this month and played well in April, but sat out Philadelphia’s play-in game victory over Miami. The Sixers went 12-18 in the two months he missed.

Coach Nick Nurse has to walk a fine line with Embiid, who should dominate the paint against New York’s Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson. Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau stresses physical defense, so expect plenty of that if New York’s plan is to wear Embiid down.

Key Matchup: Jalen Brunson vs. Tyrese Maxey. If Brunson should be an MVP finalist, then so should Tyrese Maxey for Most Improved Player. The former Kentucky Wildcat continued breaking out this season and averaged a career-best 25.9 points and 6.2 assists per game. His Value Over Replacement Player jumped from 1.3 last year to 3.4 in 2023-24.

It’s a classic playoff matchup. Young upstart scoring point guard versus a tested veteran with ice water in his veins. A core group that plays hard to win night in and night out, and now add playoff adrenaline. Both teams’ offenses run through Brunson and Maxey, and both teams have the same key to victory: Slow down the other point guard.

X-Factor: Mitchell Robinson. In case you haven’t heard, Knicks center Mitchell Robinson is injury-prone. He’s only played in more than 70 games once in six years, and managed just 31 (21 starts) this season due to an ankle injury. Lucky for the Knicks, Robinson is good to go for Game 1.

Which Robinson will the Knicks get in the playoffs? The elite rim protector who rules the paint, or the glass seven-footer who suddenly sits out a second half? New York needs Mitchell Robinson to stop Joel Embiid dead in his tracks. If he’s not healthy, Thibodeau had hope Hartenstein. Precious Achiuwa, and OG Anunoby’s recovering elbow are enough to defend up front.

76ers Predicted Starters: Tyrese Maxey (PG), Kyle Lowry (SG), Kelly Oubre Jr. (SF), Tobias Harris (PF), Joel Embiid (C)

Knicks Predicted Starters: Jalen Brunson (PG), Donte DiVincenzo (SG), Josh Hart (SF), OG Anunoby (PF), Isaiah Hartenstein (C)

Series Prediction: These teams match up very well against each other. They’re both fairly middling scoring squads anchored by strong defenses. In the Knicks’ case, their defense ranked second in points allowed per game.

With a formula of one-third Thibodeau’s iron defense, one-third Brunson’s determined leadership, and one-third sheer will, New York fights back to the East Semis. Knicks in six.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.