Josh Hart’s late-game buckets lead Knicks to Game 1 win over Joel Embiid, 76ers

NEW YORK — Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden Saturday night. In the minutes leading up to tipoff, fan anticipation for Game 1 of the Knicks‘ first-round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers reached its peak.

The venue revered as the World’s Most Famous Arena was filled to capacity. Former Knicks greats such as Bernard King, Allan Houston and Latrell Sprewell were in the house. Familiar faces such as Michael Strahan, David Harbour and Jason Bateman lined celebrity row. Each fan in attendance was given synchronized LED bracelets, which created a spectacle of colorful flashing lights as Jalen Brunson and his fellow Knicks starters were announced.

The Garden was lit. The cheers were deafening. Rally towels were out in full force. And when Josh Hart’s 25-footer drew first blood just seconds into regulation, it nearly blew the roof off the place. That shot set the tone in the Knicks’ 111-104 Game 1 defeat of Philadelphia, and Hart would knock down more tough buckets as the night went on.

Joel Embiid was a handful to deal with early. The reigning league MVP converted on his first three attempts to help the 76ers race out to a 12-5 lead. Just like that, the crowd was silenced, and the Knicks could not buy a bucket, either. Fueled by 15 early points from Embiid, the 76ers shot 11 for 20 in the first quarter while the Knicks went 7 for 22.

Deflated and down nine after 12 minutes of action, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau went to his reserves to start the second quarter and that is when the Knicks began to snatch momentum back. Miles McBride and Bojan Bogdanović came off the bench hot, trading 3-pointers and slicing their way to the rim. The game was suddenly tied at 36 with 9:28 left in the first half and, right on cue, the Garden crowd became a factor once again.

From there, the game evolved into the back-and-forth postseason affair many expected entering the night. That changed with under three minutes left in the half. Embiid threw it off the glass to himself, threw down a thunderous dunk, but came down hard. He laid on his back with his arms stretched above his head as OG Anunoby took advantage of a four-on-five fast-break opportunity for the Knicks at the other end.

Embiid entered the night listed as questionable, still recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss 29 regular-season games. As he laid under the 76ers’ basket surrounded by teammates, coaches and trainers, many assumed the worst. When the center was finally able to stand, he slowly made his way back to the locker room. And the Knicks took full advantage of his absence, ending the second quarter on a 7-0 run to take a 58-46 lead into halftime.

However, the Embiid situation proved to be just a scare. Not only did he start the second half, but the 76ers were plus-15 with him on the court. Embiid was clearly pacing himself. He scored just five of his 29 points in the third quarter on 2-of-6 shooting. But Philadelphia did not need much from him because Tyrese Maxey and Kyle Lowry were unconscious.

Maxey and Lowry combined for 24 points in the period, turning what was once a 14-point 76ers deficit into a three-point lead entering the final frame. The Knicks were outscored, 36-21, in the third quarter and allowed Philadelphia to shoot 61.9%.

But basketball is a game of runs, and the Knicks saved their best offensive burst for last. Hart, who opened the scoring with a trey on Saturday night, knocked down three more in the fourth quarter to keep Philadelphia on its heels. He scored 13 of the Knicks’ 32 points in the final frame. Embiid missed five straight attempts down the stretch as the 76ers were outscored by 10 over the final 12 minutes.

Maxey finished with a game-high 33 points for Philadelphia. Lowry contributed 18 points. Brunson and Hart scored 22 points each for the Knicks, while McBride added 21 off the bench.

The Knicks’ first-round series against Philadelphia will continue on Monday at Madison Square Garden.