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Knicks plan to limit free throws, threes against 76ers’ reigning MVP Joel Embiid

Two things you’ve got to respect about reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid?

His three-point shot has come a long way — and he knows how to use his seven-foot, 280-pound frame to get to the foul line.

Keeping Embiid in check is priority No. 1 for a Knicks team hoping to win its first-round playoff matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, and make no mistake: Meniscus injury or not, the Sixers’ superstar center is going to get his.

If the Knicks can keep Embiid from getting clean looks from three-point range, and if they can stay disciplined with their hands as he plays bully-ball in the paint, they will put themselves in good position to win in the first round.

Much easier said than done.

Embiid has been on a heater from downtown since returning from in-season meniscus surgery. Since his return, he is shooting 48.1% from downtown. His 38.8% shooting clip from three-point range on the season as a whole is a career-best.

It’s the volume of threes Embiid has taken since rejoining the 76ers that could plague a Knicks team historically struggling to defend the stretch five. The reigning MVP is attempting 5.4 threes per game in the month of April and shot two-of-four from deep in Wednesday’s Play-In Tournament victory over the Miami Heat.

“That’s what makes him who he is,” head coach Tom Thibodeau said after practice in Tarrytown on Thursday. “He’s got great touch for a guy that size and he can put it on the floor.”

Embiid’s threes are secondary in the Knicks’ eyes to his free throw shooting. His 11.6 free throw attempts per game rank No. 1 in all of basketball this season. Embiid has led the league in free throw attempts per game in four of the last five seasons.

He has attempted 10 or more free throws in nine of his last 10 games against the Knicks, including a 27-attempt game in Feb. 2022.

“He can play back to the basket, he can play pick-and-roll, he can handle the ball, he’s a gifted passer,” Thibodeau continued. “We’ve gotta keep him off the line. I guess that term they were using: foul baiter.”

Knowing what’s coming, however, isn’t the same as making the right reaction in the moment. Embiid is crafty, and he can make it look like the ball is within swiping range, only to swipe through and draw a shooting foul on his way to the rim.

Thibodeau says this is where the fundamentals come into play.

“Play defense with your feet, body position, put your hands to H, but then you have to use them correctly,” he explained. “So I don’t want guys reaching in or that sort of thing, but I do want us tracing the ball properly, challenging shots properly, I think that’s a big part of defense. So if we do it correctly and we tie everything together, our defense is pretty good.”

Hartenstein will have the lion’s share of the Embiid duty this series and has come a long way this season in his ability to stay out of foul trouble. He knows he can play perfect defense and an All-Star player will still find his way to the foul line.

“Make sure to keep your hands back, knowing at the end of the day that he’s an MVP, so there’s gonna be some calls that don’t go in your favor,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s really just doing your job, playing team defense, and again, don’t really put your hands in. It’s also smart from him. I’m not saying it’s bad. If he’s smart enough to do it, and we keep doing it, that’s kind of on us.”

OG Anunoby said he expected to switch onto Embiid over the course of the series, too. An elite defender, Anunoby knows he has to be aware of Embiid’s propensity to draw fouls.

“I guess thinking about it a little bit, but also just throwing him different looks,” Anunoby said. “Keeping my hand there and making sure it’s out by the time he’s trying to swipe up. Mixing it up, not letting him comfortable with one way or playing my hands back. Just mixing up for him.”

The Knicks can keep Embiid off the line and limit his threes, but a player of his caliber can still find ways to dominate the game.

The Knicks, of course, can’t help him hurt them: and giving up open threes and ticky-tack fouls is a recipe for first-round disaster at Madison Square Garden.

“Obviously, if you’re averaging 34 points a game or 35 points a game, you’re an elite scorer. And [Embiid] does it a lot of different ways,” Thibodeau said. “So, he can shoot the ball. He can put it on the floor. He can post up. He can offensive rebound. And so, we have to guard him with our team. We gotta try to make him work for his points. He’s gotta see people, and then we’ll go from there.”


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