Mike Vaccaro

Mike Vaccaro


Raucous Knicks fans will be pivotal X factor in 76ers showdown: ‘Gives me goose bumps’

Let’s stop the silliness before it begins, can we do that? Let’s start there.

Yes, 76ers backup center Paul Reed said this after Philly escaped the Heat by a point in the play-in game Wednesday night: “We ain’t ducking no smoke, but yeah, we wanted the Knicks matchup, of course. That’s the easier team I guess, but you know it’s going to be fun, we match up pretty well.”

That’s not trash talk. That’s truth. That’s not bulletin-board material, and it’s not even all that brash or bold. And it’s not a disrespectful dig at the Knicks. Of course the Sixers would rather play the Knicks than the Celtics. If you play in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, you’d rather play anyone besides the Celtics. Would you rather go to trig class or play kickball in gym class?

Hell, the Knicks were a lot more audacious in making that same point — without saying a word — simply by playing as hard as they did down the stretch, finally securing the No. 2 seed, the chief perk of which is that they won’t have to worry about the Celtics unless they make the conference finals. If that happens, they’ll happily take on the ’72 Lakers or the ’96 Bulls, maybe a mash-up of both, because their mission will be accomplished.

Isaiah Hartenstein and the Knicks will open the playoffs as the No. 2 seed Saturday. Charles Wenzelberg

Besides, this best-of-seven series between the Knicks and the 76ers that launches Saturday at Madison Square Garden doesn’t need any artificial fuel. This is going to be a loud, profane, high-octane series, as well as a fascinating one.

The Knicks are the No. 2 seed. The Sixers have to believe they would be that, at worst, if Joel Embiid had been healthy. With Embiid, the Sixers won at a pace that they’d be 65-17 over 82 games. That’s a game better than the Celtics, if you’re keeping score at home. The Knicks reached 50 wins thanks to maximum effort, yes. They were also helped along by Embiid’s injury, and by the one that’s knocked Giannis Antetokounmpo out of the Bucks’ lineup.

That doesn’t diminish the Knicks; it’s just truth. Both teams know that. It’s why this series promises to be so fierce, and so ferocious. Everyone else knows that, too, which is why the Knicks started out as underdogs when the 76ers first beat the Heat, why the oddsmakers at almost every gambling house now have this as a pick-’em series.

In a series like this, you start looking at X factors.

And this is where Madison Square Garden kicks in.

This is where it will be important to see if you’ll be able to hear yourself think starting just past 6 p.m. Saturday when the ball tips and the Knicks enter the playoffs, officially, for their highest seed since 2013. In that year, there was similar concern about the opponent: the Celtics, still populated by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, a team with pedigree and loads of playoff experience that felt like the worst kind of first-round matchup for the Knicks.

The Knicks survived that one in six, partially because in Games 1 and 2 the Garden willed the Knicks to series-defining wins, overcoming a seven-point deficit in the first and a nine-point hole in the second, that even salty vets like Pierce could recognize.

Spike Lee is pictured during a Knicks game at the Garden in March. Robert Sabo for the NY Post
Donte DiVincenzo and the Knicks could have up to four games at the Garden against the 76ers. Charles Wenzelberg

“Those fans,” Pierce said after Game 2, “wouldn’t allow us to win.”

It will be just as loud and just as bawdy at Philly’s Wells Fargo Center, which almost booed the 76ers all the way back to the Turnpike on Wednesday night when they fell behind by 14, which turned immediately the moment Miami’s Caleb Martin missed a pair of free throws (securing free chicken for all 19,788 in the house), which then carried the Sixers home and steered them straight to the Penn Plaza entrance.

Add in a dash of Philly-New York combustibility, and what else do you need?

Isaiah Hartenstein said that Knicks fans “are going to give us a lot of energy” at the Garden. Charles Wenzelberg

“Knicks fans,” Isaiah Hartenstein said, “are going to give us a lot of energy. They make the regular season sound like the playoffs, so it gives me goose bumps to think about what they’ll make the playoffs sound like.”

That’s the real noise, the important noise, the noise that’ll spill out of the Garden and out onto Eighth Avenue in Games 1, 2, 5 and 7, the noise that’ll flood out of Wells Fargo and out onto South Broad Street during Games 3, 4 and 6. Paul Reed? Anyone else who wants to clear their throat? They’ll soon be drowned out by the clatter and the hullabaloo of what ought to be some series. See ya at 6.