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The Scrappy Knicks Finally Sent The 76ers To The Grave

OG Anunoby dunks Joel Embiid into hell.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Teams are not usually so closely matched at this time of year, certainly not second seeds and seventh seeds. Matchups that on paper look tantalizing often quickly expose some critical, unsurvivable vulnerability on one side or the other—usually it's the lower seed, and usually it's some matter of roster depth, the kind of thing that cannot be solved on the fly in the season's eighth month—and the prodding open and then hammering of that vulnerability makes the series into quick work. The Knicks and the 76ers went six games in their first-round series and New York advanced Thursday night with a 118–115 road win, but the final, total margin in the series was a single point. I had the feeling, during a feverish second half of desperate do-or-die basketball, that under the right circumstances these two squads could play for two months straight without either side ever enjoying more than a few consecutive minutes of breathing room.

But that's another thing about May basketball: The circumstances are almost never right, and even when they are they're unlikely to stay that way. Philadelphia's best player, Joel Embiid, was never fully healthy in the playoffs, and spent this series in visible, alarming physical discomfort, at times appearing so hobbled and unwell that I wouldn't have been too shocked to learn he was suffering from some sort of organ failure. The Sixers scratched and scrambled their way back from an early 22-point deficit, and fought to the end with all the desperation of a team still hanging onto its dreams. But every time I focused my attention on Embiid's drooping frame and grinding, laborious movements I had the fleeting but inescapable impression that he might prefer to get this shit over with, to wake up Friday morning with no more high-level basketball on his schedule between now and October. And then a suddenly resurrected Buddy Hield would bury another quick-trigger three-pointer to bring the crowd to its feet, or a heroic Nic Batum would bank home an improbable put-back to answer another Knicks mini-run, and Embiid would be doomed to at least another few minutes of working to extend rather than to conclude what has been a remarkably miserable season for a reigning MVP.

The Knicks also weren't entirely well—they were down a starter in Julius Randle and lost their only reliable bench scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic, to a season-ending foot injury in Game 3—but there was the feeling in this series of ships pausing for a skirmish while headed in opposite directions. That's probably overstating it: The Knicks aren't exactly young, and Tom Thibodeau's players tend to age like spotted bananas; they might never be better and fresher for a summit push than they are today. For that matter, the East is screwy and Embiid is great, and it's not impossible that the 76ers could find themselves better positioned for a title chase next season, or the one after. I will admit that the visuals of Embiid's bout with Bell's palsy in these playoffs probably accentuate the impression of decay, but I had the real feeling, when Embiid fouled out with 11 seconds left on the clock and his team down by a point, that the Knicks had finally closed the championship window the 76ers have enjoyed during Embiid's all-too-brief athletic prime.

The defining moment came not at the final buzzer but two and a half minutes earlier: The Knicks were up six points inside the game's final three minutes when an absolutely psychotic Josh Hart tracked down an offensive rebound—one of a whopping 20 hauled in by the Knicks Thursday night—and handed the ball off to Donte DiVincenzo, who swung it over to OG Anunoby on the left wing. You have to watch the replay to really appreciate how sluggish and tired the Sixers were by this point in the game, and how demoralized they'd become by all of New York's relentless work on the offensive glass. Tobias Harris stood perfectly still at the top of the key, flat-footed, even his gaze failing to track the ball as it whipped across his field of vision. No Sixers defender did more than flinch toward Anunoby, who was standing in an acre of cleared space. Anunoby considered launching from deep, but the runway to the hoop was cleared and no one in a blue jersey seemed even vaguely aware of it, let alone interested in taking action. It was Embiid, finally, who met Anunoby at the rim, but in the manner of a groundhog stumbling into the path of a hungry grizzly bear, or possibly a meteor. The violence of the resulting dunk could be measured on the Richter scale.

An earlier, healthier version of Embiid might've risen from the floor like sudden orogenic uplift and stuffed the ball into and then out of certain of Anunoby's orifices, or at least clobbered him into a gooey mush. This one barely even arrived on time, and for the effort he was made into street pizza. This is all aided by hindsight, of course, but the Embiid that discovered himself blinking helplessly as Anunoby descended from the clouds and could do nothing more forceful than brush the dunker's elbow was not going to lead the 76ers very much further than where they'd found themselves in that moment, behind and reeling on their home floor and depending way too much on the savvy of Nic damn Batum.

However the two sides got here, the cosmos delivered the right result, sending forward the fresher and feistier team, the one with the in-form superstar in Jalen Brunson, who topped 40 points for the third consecutive game and made a series of killer buckets down the stretch to keep the Sixers in scramble mode. The Knicks get the weekend off and then a series against the lower-seeded Pacers, whose own advancement to the conference semifinals required a downright cartoonish amount of injury assistance. Philadelphia goes into a summer of grappling with the growing sense that their best player and the foundation of this era of 76ers basketball—the singular talent that made it possible for them to persevere as a contender through bad luck and bad coaching and genuinely perplexing and indefensible roster decisions—might truly not be be built for this shit, at, like, the musculoskeletal level. That sucks to think about; at least the rest of us have been spared a little longer from the sight of Embiid calcifying past the point when he ceases to be a Sisyphean figure and becomes, finally, the boulder.

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