PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia 76ers had to grind through a play-in game with the Miami Heat to reach the NBA playoffs. Can they do it for a whole series this time? That’s what they'll have to do to beat the New York Knicks.

The 76ers lost to the Knicks thrice during the regular season, getting outscored by 71 points in their four matchups. In the lone game that featured Joel Embiid, the Sixers got run into the dirt in a 36-point defeat, their worst of the season. Philly is a better team now and has Embiid back in action but those aren’t reasons to take New York lightly.

“I think they're for real,” Nick Nurse said. “I think they're really good. I think they're fast. I think they can shoot. I think they hit the glass. I think they guard you. I think they've earned that seed. They've played really well and beaten a lot of good teams. So we'll have our work to do here in the next couple of days to get ready for 'em.”

The Knicks are without All-Star forward Julius Randle but still have a deep team that excels on both ends of the floor. OG Anunoby, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo are skilled, athletics wings that complement Jalen Brunson, one of the toughest players to guard in all of basketball. Isaiah Hartenstein, Mitchell Robinson and Precious Achiuwa provide the muscle down low. New York has more depth with sharpshooters Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks and blossoming backup point guard Miles McBride.

“They got our number this year. They came in twice in this place and pretty much kick our butt twice,” Nico Batum said after the Sixers beat the Miami Heat in the play-in game at Wells Fargo Center. He added that Brunson is having an MVP-caliber season.

The winner of this 76ers-Knicks series has a great path to the conference finals, as the second round would bring the series winner would face either an Indiana Pacers team that is hardly battle-tested or the Milwaukee Bucks, who are in freefall amid Giannis Antetokounmpo's calf injury.

Still, before that potential matchup, two of the Eastern Conference's heavyweights will have to answer to the tough task that begins on Saturday in Madison Square Garden.

“It's a different atmosphere,” Batum said. “So it's gonna be a great series.”

76ers must figure out how to slow down Jalen Brunson

Maxey said the Knicks are “tough” and that Brunson is the “head of the snake.” The All-Star guard averaged 28.7 points per game this regular season, closing it out with 37.8 points per game (along with 8.3 assists) over his final 10.

Surprisingly, the lone win that Philly managed over New York this season came in Madison Square Garden without Embiid and Maxey. The Sixers shut off Brunson's water and won in a historically low-scoring game. Embiid should help with that game plan as one of the NBA's toughest paint defenders. Especially because New York's bigs can’t shoot, he can comfortably roam the paint and contest shots.

But on the other end, the Knicks have the makings of a defensive juggernaut. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has earned a reputation as a defensive mastermind and the players he has at his disposal, namely an All-Defensive-Team-caliber wing in Anunoby, can shut down anyone. Their style of play has been metaphorically compared to beating opponents with baseball bats.

“We gotta find ways to slow him down but thankfully we got people that we can kind of throw at him. We got Joel down there protecting us. But they're an extremely grimy team. They play hard, they're physical, they're tough and that's their identity,” Maxey said. “So for us to go in there and try to get W's and try to win this series, we have to match that. And not just match it, but we have to overcome that and be better than that and be extremely physical as well.”

During the regular season, the 76ers and Knicks both experienced stretches when they won at elite rates. They’ve both dealt with injuries (some of which still affect them) and now will meet in the first round of the playoffs in what should be one of the most competitive series in recent memory between the No. 2 and No. 7 seeds.

“I think we know what we have to do,” Maxey said. “They kicked our tail in the regular season so it's time to go in there and fight.”