NBA playoffs 2024: Why the Philadelphia 76ers' 2-0 deficit might not be as dire as it seems

Stephen A. feels sad for Embiid: 'The dude is on one leg' (1:37)

Stephen A. Smith reacts to the Knicks' fourth-quarter comeback in their Game 2 win over the 76ers. (1:37)

The New York Knicks pulled off one of the most remarkable comebacks of the NBA postseason to escape Game 2 with a win against the Philadelphia 76ers -- and a 2-0 series lead -- and the 76ers return home with history decidedly against them.

This is the 15th time in franchise history that the 76ers have dropped the opening two games of a best-of-seven series. Their record in those prior playoff matchups? Zero wins, 14 losses. And across NBA history, teams in Philadelphia's position have gone 22-265 (.083).

Yet, in the aftermath of Philadelphia's collapse in the closing seconds of Game 2, 76ers superstar Joel Embiid still firmly believes his team is going to find a way to overcome this deficit.

"We're good," Embiid said, sitting inside Madison Square Garden's visiting locker room Monday night after playing 39 minutes on a balky left knee.

"We're going to win this series."

There are reasons to believe Embiid's optimism is more than simple bravado. Heading into Thursday's Game 3, here are five reasons this 76ers-Knicks series could have a long way to go.

Even a hobbled Embiid has impacted this series

Josh Hart gets MSG hyped after 4th triple

Josh Hart pulls up on the fast break and drains his fourth 3-pointer of the game to get the crowd hyped.

Embiid is limited for another playoff run. This time, it's his left knee, on which he had a procedure in February. He also appeared to get poked in the eye during Game 1 and spent his media session looking away from the camera after Game 2 and has worn a pair of black Gucci sunglasses whenever he's in public and not on the court.

But while Embiid hasn't been nearly the same efficient scorer he was during the regular season, shooting a combined 39% overall (including 4-for-17 from 3-point range), he's still having a massively positive impact on the series when he's on the court. In the 76 minutes he played in Games 1 and 2, the 76ers have outscored the Knicks by 17 points. In the 20 minutes he has been on the bench, the Knicks have outscored the 76ers by 27 points.

And there are a couple of specific areas where that is showing up. Offensively, Embiid's passing has been excellent, as he has had a combined 12 assists to just four turnovers over the first two games, including a brilliant bounce pass in transition in Game 1 and a key assist to Tyrese Maxey out of a double-team in Game 2 that led to what, at the time, appeared to be the 3-pointer that would seal the win for the 76ers.

Defensively, Embiid's hampered mobility has been a problems for the Sixers. He has averaged nine rebounds through the first two games, but New York dominated the offensive glass in Game 1, and Embiid didn't grab a single defensive rebound in the second half of Game 2. Where his impact is clearly showing up, however, is as a shot deterrent inside, as ESPN's internal tracking data shows New York is shooting 5-for-17 when Embiid is contesting shots.

Maxey is showing why he is the league's most improved player

Maxey has been the most productive player in this series through two games. Playing through an illness in Monday's Game 2 loss, he finished with 35 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists in a team-high 44 minutes. In the first two games, Maxey has shot 54% overall and 40% from 3-point range and has averaged 34 points and 7 assists.

But 76ers coach Nick Nurse called for Maxey to up his aggressiveness after Game 2, even after averaging 24 shots in the first two games.

"There were stretches of the game where I didn't see him being so aggressive," Nurse said of Maxey's Game 2. "But certainly like the last 15 minutes, he was really chasing it down and turning on the jets -- all the things he can do just time and time again. So, I thought he was great when it really mattered."

Maxey is one of the fastest players in the league, finishing second only to Stephen Curry in average speed on offense this season per Second Spectrum, and he has shown an ability to get to the rim at will even against New York's elite defense through the first two games. The 76ers will need more of that if it wants to even up the series.

Philadelphia's plan for Jalen Brunson is working

Throughout this magical season for the Knicks, Brunson has been the team's engine. He broke through for his first All-Star selection, is likely to get MVP and First-Team All-NBA votes and has developed into one of the league's elite point guards after averaging 28.7 points and 6.7 assists and shooting 47.9% overall and 40.1% from 3-point range during the regular season.

Brunson hasn't performed like that player over the first two games in New York. He was predictably right in the middle of New York's comeback Monday night, hitting a 3-pointer and helping force Maxey into the game-deciding turnover.

But over the first two games, Philadelphia has given Brunson loads of problems. He has shot a combined 16-for-53 (29.1%) from the field over those games, including 2-for-12 from 3-point range, as Philadelphia's game plan -- relying on Kelly Oubre Jr. and his 7-foot wingspan harassing Brunson on the perimeter and trailing him on drives into the paint, coupled with Embiid's massive presence at the rim -- is clearly having an impact.

Oubre has had success against Brunson throughout the games between the two teams this season, holding him to just 26% shooting in halfcourt matchups, per Second Spectrum.

When asked how to mitigate his early playoff struggles, Brunson was clear. "Slow down. Be myself. Plain and simple," he said.

As the series shifts to the city where Brunson won a pair of national championships at Villanova, his play -- and whether he can get back to the version of himself that dominated during the regular season -- will be a key storyline to watch.

Philly is playing the percentages with Josh Hart's shooting -- and (mostly) winning

Entering this series, not only was the outside expectation that Philadelphia would leave Hart alone to fire away from 3-point range -- it was Hart's expectation, too.

"The last two games of the regular season, our season series, Nick's game plan was just to play off me and dare me to make shots," Hart said after Game 1. "I knew that as soon as they won [the play-in game]. And I knew it would be the same thing with [Heat coach Erik Spoelstra] if Miami won it. So that's something I knew I had to focus on."

Philadelphia has focused most of its defensive attention on Brunson and has dared Hart to hit open triples. And between the fourth quarter of Game 1 and the first half of Game 2, he went 7-for-9 from 3-point range.

In the other five quarters of this series? He has gone a combined 1-for-6. That is much more in line with his 31% clip from behind the arc this season, and why Nurse has said on several occasions over the past few days that he is comfortable leaving Hart open on the perimeter.

"Obviously you are trying to guard certain guys," Nurse said after Game 1, when Hart buried three late triples to win the game for the Knicks. "Give them credit.

"I think we're probably OK with some of those shots, but they hit them. Give them credit for stepping into them and hitting them."

The Sixers' role players haven't delivered through two games

Through the first two games of this series, Embiid and Maxey have combined to score 63.9% of the 76ers points, up from 44.0% in the regular season through late January, when Embiid injured his knee. Philadelphia will look to role players such as Oubre, Tobias Harris and Buddy Hield and as the series shifts back to Philadelphia. The three of them have combined to shoot 35% from the field in the series.

"Just get back in the gym and get ready," Harris said after Game 2. "I mean, it's the playoffs. There are no moral victories and no one's gonna feel sorry for us, so we gotta figure out ways to get better and figure out ways to get our first win and get this thing home."

Harris, who scored 17.2 points per game during the regular season, is in single digits through the first two games. Oubre has dropped from 15.4 points per game in the regular season to 7.0 so far in this series. And Hield, in the playoffs for the first time in his career, has gone 1-for-5 in 26 minutes, and missed all three of his 3-point attempts.

Conversely, the Knicks have gotten 30 points from Miles McBride and 19 from Bojan Bogdanovic, who hit two crucial 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter of Game 2 to keep the Knicks in front.

"That was like a little bit of the difference of the game," Nurse said of Bogdanovic's late baskets. "They kinda just keep bringing all these guys in that can shoot the 3 and they're just firing them like they're not even really that open sometimes. And they're making them."

If those results flip as the location changes, it would seriously boost Philadelphia's chances.

ESPN Stats and Information's Matt Williams contributed to this story.