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OG Anunoby’s versatility gives Knicks several options to defend Joel Embiid, 76ers

The spark could not have occurred without 20 seconds of friction.

With nine and a half minutes to go in Game 4 of a first-round playoff series, Josh Hart was the only person standing between a Philadelphia 76ers one-point lead and a sustained deficit. The New York Knicks’ do-everything man leaped with two arms up as Nicolas Batum soared into his grill. The 6-foot-4 agitator spiked Batum’s dunk attempt, maintaining the Knicks’ narrow advantage.

The swat made highlight reels. Who doesn’t love a demoralizing rejection? But the special stuff, the content head coach Tom Thibodeau obsesses over, began 20 seconds before Hart even took to the air.

There is a reason Hart timed that play as well as he did. It’s the same reason Batum rushed the shot, the same reason that led the Knicks to a staunch defensive performance down the stretch of Game 4, which helped them to a 97-92 win and handed them a 3-1 series edge over the Sixers.

During the seconds leading into Hart’s block, the Knicks forced the 76ers to procrastinate, unable to get the ball to their desired target, Joel Embiid. The clock ticked away until Philadelphia had no other option but to shoot.

Hart may have finished the stop with an exclamation point, but his teammates started it.

Before Batum ever caught the basketball, before Embiid flung him a bullet, before the reigning MVP even received an entry pass was a sequence out of a Thibodeau fever dream.

The 76ers were slow getting the ball across half court and were even more stagnant looking for Embiid. It took eight seconds between when Embiid first posted up OG Anunoby, who manned him during the fourth quarter, and when the 7-footer touched the basketball. By the time he fielded a pass, there were only five seconds to go in the possession.

This was the Knicks’ fourth-quarter approach to Embiid, the same one that held a man who just dropped 50 in Game 3 without a basket during the final period and that limited the Sixers to only 16 points over the last 12 minutes. New York was not just defending the shots the 76ers took; it was preventing good ones from ever occurring.

It’s why Anunoby, who the Knicks traded for in December and is a free agent after this season, is about to earn a massive payday. He may have finished Game 4 with 16 points and 14 rebounds, but his impact was hardly modest.

He played 47 minutes. Come the most important moments of Game 4, he draped himself all over Embiid. He fronted him, denying passes from the perimeter. Somehow while staying on Embiid’s chest side, he managed to push the 35-point scorer out from the paint, keeping him far from the areas where Embiid could exert his size advantage.

“I want them to try to throw the pass because I think I can steal it,” Anunoby said. “I think they know too, which is why they don’t throw it sometimes. And then (I) also (want to) drain clock and (make him) have to go farther out and then they can go to the next option.”

Take away enough options, and the offense disconnects. The Knicks deterred Philadelphia from running its actions early. They cut off passing lanes to Embiid. Their guards pressured the Sixers’ facilitators. They rushed Embiid with double-teams, leaving the Philly without enough time to run an emergency pick-and-roll on the other side if the first action did not work. In turn, Philadelphia’s offense crumbled.

The Knicks eliminated what the Sixers wanted. And they did it with a strategy that was not in line with their norm.

Anunoby, a forward, battled with Embiid, a big man. Precious Achiuwa, the center in those minutes, marked Kelly Oubre Jr., a wing.

The adjustment from Sunday that has garnered the most attention was Anunoby’s. He had not yet guarded Embiid in this series. With Mitchell Robinson nursing a sprained left ankle and with Isaiah Hartenstein sitting down because of five fouls, that changed.

“Going into the series, we thought this could be a possibility,” Thibodeau said. “We probably were gonna use it more in a different situation. But the situation we were in, with Mitch being out, Isaiah in foul trouble — and then I wanted to get a look at it anyway and he wanted to do it so we got a look at it.

“And look, Embiid, he’s a load. You’re not guarding him individually. You gotta guard him with your team.”

That’s what the Knicks did, and it wasn’t just Anunoby. The team guarded Embiid, as it showed on the Hart block when Embiid noticed a double-team coming and whipped the ball to Batum. But the group added a new riff, too.

On Sunday, the Knicks put themselves in rotation, not usually their preference. They double-teamed Embiid more aggressively when Anunoby guarded him, forcing the ball out his hands, which led to panicky 76ers possessions because those second defenders were arriving so late in the shot clock.

Even the highlight moment of Game 4, when Kyle Lowry rose for a 3-pointer only for Anunoby to deter the shot and for Achiuwa to spike an Embiid jumper into the stands seconds later, occurred after a double-team, this one on Maxey.

It was another block, like Hart’s, that Achiuwa could time because the shot clock was about to expire.

The Knicks so often guard their opponents straight up. Centers defend centers. They don’t want to overload one side of the court, either. The preference throughout this series has been for Hartenstein or Robinson to shove Embiid far from the hoop, then encourage the burly big man to go one-on-one. If Embiid nudges himself deep into the paint, help comes. But this is the playoffs, when adjustments become necessary.

Anunoby’s performance told the story of the Knicks’ changes.

He fought with Embiid for the finale of a must-win contest. Part of the reason they felt comfortable putting themselves in rotation was because of the group they had on the court, which included Anunoby, as well as heady scramblers like Hart, Achiuwa and Miles “Deuce” McBride.

Anunoby-themed adjustments didn’t begin during the fourth quarter, either.

The all-defensive wing had taken on Maxey for most of the series, but Maxey, an explosive guard, blew by the bulkier Anunoby too often over the first three games. So the Knicks entered Game 4 with a new alignment.

Hart tagged Maxey, and Anunoby moved to Oubre, who often hangs in the weak-side corner. Placing Anunoby on an inconsistent shooter meant he could roam into the lane, playing as more of a safety than cornerback. The Knicks could not have shut down the 76ers if he had not cut off drivers and cutters.

It helps having Hart, who can man guards and wings. And it doesn’t hurt having Anunoby, one of the league’s few defenders who doesn’t just switch onto one through five but can start on them. His former team, the Toronto Raptors, placed him on centers often. Just a couple of years ago, Anunoby was manning Embiid in a playoff series.

This is why the Knicks acquired Anunoby. So far in this series, he’s defended the quick-twitch, All-Star guard, he’s been the helper on the weak side and he’s wrestled with the 280-pound MVP.

History tends to repeat itself. NBA teams, especially ones run by Anunoby’s former coach, Nick Nurse, who now leads Philadelphia’s bench, will adjust to the adjustments. The Knicks will likely begin Game 5, which is at 7 p.m. (ET) Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, with Hartenstein on Embiid. They could stick Anunoby to Oubre or could shuffle him back to Maxey if Hart struggles. Now they know they have this move, Anunoby on Embiid, in their pocket, too.

If they bust it out again, the Sixers could make an effort to get Embiid on the move more instead of just posting him up and hoping to lob him the ball. They could sprint up the court and attack with 18 on the shot clock instead of 14. As The Athletic’s Seth Partnow has written, offenses lose approximately one expected point per 100 possessions for every second that ticks off the clock.

The 76ers could go back to some of those pick-and-rolls that sliced apart the Knicks during the third quarter of Game 3 when they shot 17 of 22 from the field. Philadelphia used two simultaneous screeners, Embiid on one side and the man whom Jalen Brunson was guarding on the other, to bring the Knicks’ weakest defender into a Maxey-led action.

But in Game 4, especially down the stretch, New York made the Sixers work.

Achiuwa bounced around the court, blocking four shots and deterring more. McBride and Hart rumbled into closeout after closeout. Brunson nailed his rotations. The entire group communicated. And Anunoby, even while defending someone half a foot taller than him, stood eye to eye with one of the game’s elite players.

He might be pound for pound the best defender in the NBA,” Achiuwa said. “And he was able to show that tonight with his versatility, strength, challenging shots at the basket, being able to guard somebody like Embiid, who has a lot of weight on him, but he (Anunoby) was able to hold his own and take on the challenge.

(Photo of OG Anunoby, Joel Embiid and Isaiah Hartenstein: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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