It’s hard to say that a higher-seed “stole” a game, but that’s what it felt like on Saturday night in New York. In a game in which the New York Knicks’ best player, Jalen Brunson, accumulated five turnovers and made only 17% of his three-point attempts, the Knicks’ role players carried them to a major Game 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Knicks’ starters struggled

Brunson ended the game with a respectable 22 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. But his impact was seriously limited thanks to Philadelphia’s game plan — which involved defending him with longer defenders and trapping him early and often.

But it wasn’t just Brunson who struggled. No Knicks starter posted a positive plus/minus. Isaiah Hartenstein struggled to stop Joel Embiid, who converted 68% of his shot attempts against the Knicks’ starting center. OG Anunoby struggled to slow down Tyrese Maxey. And Donte DiVincenzo was unusually quiet for most of the night.

Josh Hart helped lead the way

Philadelphia 76ers forward Tobias Harris (12) looks to drive past New York Knicks guard Josh Hart (3) in the fourth quarter in game one of the first round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden.
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

One starter did have an impact, though — Josh Hart. The six-foot-four-inch wing played incredibly well, doing lots of what’s he’s become known for — and some of what he’s not.

“I knew I was going to be left open (in this series),” Hart told the media after the Knicks win. “If you base it off numbers — this regular season I think I shot like 30% — so it’s a smart game plan. But for me, it’s just continuing to take shots.“

Hart scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. Most importantly, he was four-of-eight on three point attempts, sinking two critical three-pointers late in the fourth quarter that sealed the win. 

The impactful second unit

But it wasn’t just Hart who led the Knicks. In fact, everyone, including coach Tom Thibodeau, understood the impact of the second unit.

”We started the game slowly,” coach Thibodeau explained to the media after the game. “And I thought that changed when the energy of the bench came in.”

While the Knicks’ starters played poorly, their bench did not. Coach Tom Thibodeau settled on an eight-man rotation last night, playing only three bench players — Miles McBride, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Mitchell Robinson. Those guys were a +37, +27, and +20, respectively.

Robinson’s defense was especially important. While Hartenstein couldn’t slow Embiid down (as cited above), Robinson was able to irritate the reigning MVP. Embiid shot only 18% when Robinson was the primary defender (two-for-11). He also made important plays like wrestling an errant rebound away from the 76ers and forcing a jump ball or swatting a three-point attempt into the crowd.

McBride and Bogdanovic were equally important. They combined to shoot eight-for-13 (61.5%) on three-point attempts for a team whose starters (sans Hart) made only 4-of-14 (28%).

In total, game one was unusual for the Knicks in that Brunson had a pedestrian game — and New York still walked away victorious. That doesn’t happen too often. Thibodeau and the Knicks must counter the 76ers' defensive schemes because winning a series without your best player is nearly impossible.

But “stealing” a game without your star player playing well is a major luxury. The Knicks are now up 1-0. And for the record, 78% of teams have gone on to win their series after winning game one. Still, there’s plenty of work left to do. Hopefully, Brunson can shoulder more of it beginning with game two on Sunday.