Joel Embiid pushes through the pain, puts the hurt on Knicks as 76ers win Game 3

PHILADELPHIA — There were still neon-yellow digits ticking off the scoreboard as Joel Embiid trudged away from the Wells Fargo Center floor, directly down the tunnel to the 76ers’ locker room, leaving Philadelphia’s victory song, his playoff career-high 50 points and his team’s 125-114 Game 3 victory over the visiting Knicks in his wake.

He slunk into the reclining chair at his dressing area when reporters were admitted into the vicinity. Two hulking red bins of freezing water waited to soak his feet. Philadelphia’s longtime trainer, Kevin Johnson, already left a pile of black tape, adhesives, towels, scissors, and a bulky Breg knee brace next to the reigning NBA MVP. Another brace, another option to support Embiid’s return from a meniscus surgery in that massive left leg of his, was resting on top of a bag fit for a hockey player, not an athlete whose sport requires tank tops and sneakers.

And then, after Johnson wrapped packs of ice to both sides of that ailing knee with an entire roll of ace bandage, Embiid slipped a pair of dark sunglasses on top of his nose to protect his eyes while he also endures a minor case of Bell’s palsy, which the All-Star confirmed postgame he’s been dealing with since two days prior to Philadelphia’s play-in tournament win over Miami last week in this building. His body felt off during that Heat win. He was suffering migraines and impossibly dry eyes, and now his lip has started to droop. Yet the 30-year-old, who has somehow battled a grueling setback in seemingly each postseason of his decorated career, managed to drill four-straight 3-pointers in a decisive 43-27 third quarter sprint from Philadelphia that now has the Sixers one game shy of evening a series the organization felt was this close to already being 2-0 in their favor.

“I just want to be on the floor as much as possible. I want to play as much as possible,” Embiid said. “I only got about maybe, you know, eight years left, so I gotta take as much, I gotta enjoy it as much as possible and I want to win.”

The ESPN broadcast of Game 1 back in Madison Square Garden first captured Embiid’s eyes fluttering uncontrollably as he splayed on the court following his vicious self alley-oop. Philadelphia’s center wanted to keep his condition under wraps, but with his entire jaw flopping under its own power on Thursday night, his status had become too obvious and too concerning for Embiid and the Sixers to keep the news at bay. “I got a beautiful face,” Embiid said. “I don’t like when my mouth is looking the other way.”

He finished 5-of-7 from distance, 13-of-19 overall from the field, and connected on a whopping 19-of-21 foul shots days after the Sixers filed a grievance with the NBA, claiming that Embiid and his young co-star in Tyrese Maxey have been the most disadvantaged team by officials’ whistles throughout this entire campaign.

For a while, for the first two quarters of Game 3, Embiid seemed to be battling the referees in his mind and his emotions as much as New York. After he thought he was hit on a deep attempt from the left wing late in the first quarter, Embiid flailed his arms as he ran back on defense, and then he was flailing on the floor and swiping at Mitchell Robinson’s legs as the Knicks center soared above the paint for a dunk.

“That’s something where, you know, you grab, Mitch is what, 280? You grab him by the leg when he’s jumping and you don’t allow him to come down, that’s something that, just a sprained ankle would be a fortunate injury,” said Knicks wing Josh Hart. “That one was reckless. But luckily he wasn’t seriously injured and out for a long time.” Robinson indeed walked out of the arena wearing a boot on his left foot, but it appears the injury was sustained in the second half on a different sequence.

Embiid claims he was acting out of self preservation during the play in question, having flashbacks on the hardwood to late January in San Francisco, where Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga landed awkwardly on Embiid’s knee and left the seven-time All-Star sidelined for two months, needing to visit the operating room, and now needing to lumber around the court in order to push this Sixers team toward their ultimate goal. “I didn’t mean to hurt anybody,” Embiid said. "It’s just in those situations I gotta protect myself. Because I’ve been in way too many situations where I’m always the recipient of the bad end of it.”

It was still a nasty sequence that, from one lens, could surely have resulted in Embiid’s disqualification. But after review, the incident was only ruled a flagrant 1 foul, and crew chief Zach Zarba told a pool reporter it was unanimous between the officials on site and the replay center in Secaucus that Embiid’s contact didn’t rise to the level of unnecessary and excessive. So he stayed in the game, and through the starts and stops from several coaches' challenges and stoppages of play, Embiid put his franchise on his powerful shoulders to complete arguably the strongest playoff performance of his career.

“I’ll say this, his voice and his presence tonight was the biggest thing,” said Maxey, who finished with 25 points of his own. “I know he had 50, I said that like it was nothing, but his voice, his presence, his passion was huge tonight. He didn’t let us get pushed around early.”

Embiid did push himself all around the court. In postseasons’ past, as recent as last spring’s Sixers collapse against another Atlantic Division foe in Boston, Philadelphia struggled mightily to simply put the orange rock in Embiid’s capable hands. Thursday, he was money from the top of the key and from the extended left block and made plays both out of pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs. “Being on the block every single possession, that’s just not the right way to play and that’s not gonna win you anything,” Embiid said. “I’ve done it. It doesn’t win you anything.”

Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid reacts during the second half of Game 3 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Joel Embiid put the Sixers on his back in Game 3. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

That’s partially why head coach Nick Nurse was hired in Philadelphia, known for his ingenuity while scheming against Embiid during multiple playoff series while piloting the Toronto Raptors. The first private conversation Nurse and Embiid shared upon the play-caller’s arrival harped on one key word: unpredictability. “Just putting me all over the floor, handle, corner, top of the key, paint, posting up,” Embiid said Thursday. “We’re just trying to be unpredictable as much as we can. And that’s how I love to play. That’s not the type of basketball I used to play.”

On several occasions, Nurse called for a routine spread action NBA teams typically call horns, where two big men stand around the elbows ready to play off of the ball-handler, and the other two teammates are positioned in the corners. Philadelphia inverted the design on multiple occasions in front of this raucous crowd, slotting Embiid in the far corner, where diminutive point guard Kyle Lowry — who claimed Toronto’s championship with Nurse in 2019 — hurtled toward the baseline to set a pin-down screen on Embiid’s man, Isaiah Hartenstein, standing all of 7-foot, 250 pounds. “You have to be ready to get hit,” Lowry said. The Raptors saw that action plenty during their battles against LeBron JamesCavaliers, where Channing Frye or Kevin Love were liable to burn Toronto each time Cleveland called for it.

“It’s tough to guard because if you go over it, then he should have some kind of lane to the basket,” Nurse said. “If you go under it, he’s a good enough shooter to try and step back. It’s hard to guard."

Philadelphia was certainly hard to guard Thursday night. And they look plenty ready to get back in the ring Sunday — no matter how much equipment and attention Embiid’s body needs to enter another fight.