Knicks well aware of Joel Embiid challenge that awaits them in Round 1

Joel Embiid might not be fully back to his customary level of dominance following January knee surgery, but the Knicks certainly aren’t entertaining that sort of thinking as they prepare for their first-round playoff matchup with the 76ers.

The reigning league MVP is ineligible to be a repeat winner for that award because he appeared in only 39 games in the regular season, but the Sixers improved their winning percentage to .800 (32-8) with Embiid in the lineup — versus 16-27 without him — in 2023-24 following Wednesday’s play-in victory over the Heat.

That includes a 6-0 record with the seven-time All-Star center in the lineup since his return following a two-month absence — and nine straight wins overall.

Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers Getty Images

“You prepare for MVP Joel,” Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein said after practice Thursday in Tarrytown. “You kind of see he’s going through stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s kind of what makes athletes special, we can get through a lot.

“Especially the athletes in the NBA, who can go through a lot of pain and still play. We’re ready for whatever. We’re prepared, and it’s just gonna be a team effort with Joel.”

Hartenstein cited Jimmy Butler as another example; the Miami star played through a first-quarter injury Wednesday that is expected to keep him out for multiple weeks, according to reports, including the Heat’s elimination play-in game against the Bulls for the No. 8 postseason seed.

Whereas Butler was the Knicks’ primary problem in last year’s playoffs — losing to Miami in six games in the second round — the 7-foot Embiid poses a daunting threat for Tom Thibodeau’s 50-win squad.

The Knicks finished fifth in the NBA with a net rating of 4.8 — point differential per 100 possessions — and second in the Eastern Conference behind the NBA-best Celtics.

Embiid averaged 34.7 points per game — albeit missing more than half the 82-game slate — which is slightly higher than league-leader Luka Doncic’s 33.9 scoring output.

Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat Getty Images

“Embiid, obviously, is a lot to deal with,” Thibodeau said, before typically shifting to discuss the remainder of the Sixers’ rotation.

“But there’s [Tyrese] Maxey, and they have a number of guys. [Tobias] Harris. [Kyle] Lowry has played well for them. [Nic] Batum, obviously, has been around a long time. A lot of big shots. [Buddy] Hield, great shooter, scorer. So, we know we gotta be ready.

“Just lock in. Best time of the year. Just get ready.”

Hartenstein mostly has been subjected to a minutes limit while managing an Achilles injury since the All-Star break, but he said he’s prepared to play 30 minutes per game in the postseason.

Isaiah Hartenstein #55 of the New York Knicks Getty Images

He will be backed up by former starting center Mitchell Robinson, who has logged 15.5 minutes per game over 10 appearances since returning in late March from December ankle surgery.

Thibodeau and his players described defending Embiid as a team effort, with OG Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Josh Hart all expected to help out on him defensively.

The 30-year-old Embiid got to the free-throw line 11.6 times per game this season and connected on 88.3 percent of his attempts, while also shooting a career-best 38.8 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“We’ve been preparing for both teams, but now we’re locking on one,” Anunoby said. “[Embiid] is a great player, so it’ll take the whole team being connected defensively, making it difficult for him and just trying our best.”

Added Thibodeau: “Obviously, you’re averaging 34 or 35 points a game, you’re an elite scorer. And he does it a lot of different ways. 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.”

And the Knicks definitely are operating under the assumption that Embiid, who finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds Wednesday against Miami, will be at peak form in this series beginning Saturday night at the Garden.

“Yeah, it’s the playoffs, so you’re not dealing with the back-to-backs and that sort of thing,” Thibodeau said. “So we’re anticipating him to be who he is.”