May 18, 2024

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Joel Embiid's blatant 'dirty' foul on Mitchell Robinson is the turning point in Game 3

Joel Embiid's blatant 'dirty' foul on Mitchell Robinson is the turning point in Game 3

PHILADELPHIA – Sometimes the best way to start a fire is to play with it.

Joel Embiid was halfway to the locker room, where he put one knee into the crotch and pulled another down by the ankle. He was over ejected in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, which could have meant an early end to the Philadelphia 76ers' season.

Instead, by the end of the night, Embiid was halfway to 100.

The MVP scored 50 points in a 125-114 win over the New York Knicks on Thursday, giving the Sixers their first win in a controversial series, in which they now trail 2-1. He chopped up the Knicks with jumper after jumper, draining 13-of-19 shots from the field and 5-of-7 long balls. He got to the line 21 times — more than all the Knicks combined — and sank 19 of his freebies.

His third quarter was perfect basketball.

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Embiid stabbed Knicks defenders into fouls. When they left him open, he made them pay, knocking down all four of his three-point attempts. When they didn't, it didn't matter. It will scatter in the medium range anyway. He's down just 18 points in that span.

“We have to do better,” New York coach Tom Thibodeau said. “I have to do better.”

Of course, in another world, Embiid never got a chance to reach a career-high in the playoffs. In this world, a knee to Isaiah Hartenstein's thigh or a pulled ankle to Mitchell Robinson would end his evening early.

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With four and a half minutes left in the first quarter and the Knicks taking a three-minute lead, OG Anunoby sent a pass to Robinson, who was under the basket with Embiid extended next to him. The 76ers center collapsed while trying to snatch the ball from Anunoby. As Robinson rose for a two-handed dunk, Embiid grabbed his opponent's ankle, pulling him to the floor.

After review, the officials deemed the play a blatant 1, and awarded the Knicks two free throws and the ball. Of course, things didn't have to go this way.

Donte DiVincenzo described the locomotive as “dirty.” “It's not a basketball game,” Hartenstein said.

“What's Mitch, 280 (pounds)?” Josh Hart said. “You grab his leg when he's jumping and don't let him get off, and that's one thing. Just a sprained ankle would be a lucky hit. This guy was reckless.”

Maybe if the regular season, if a playoff series hadn't hinged on having an MVP, if the 76ers hadn't filed an informal complaint with the NBA about officiating, if Game 2 hadn't ended so frantically and the final two-minute report was highlighted in red, the officials would have decided… Unlike that. They might consider Embiid's hit on Robinson a blatant 2, which would have earned him an automatic ejection. After all, he wasn't playing with the ball.

Unfortunately, the evening veered the other way.

Robinson, who returned last March from ankle surgery that kept him out of action for four months, appeared to be out of action for the rest of the first half, preferring his left side, which is the same side that underwent surgery. In the first half, the Knicks ruled him out for the remainder of the game with a sprained left ankle. He left the arena wearing his walking shoes.

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With Robinson out and Hartenstein in foul trouble, Embiid started grilling.

“I was trying to make sure he didn't fall on me because obviously we know what happened when (Golden State Warriors wing Jonathan) Kuminga fell on my knee,” said Embiid, who injured his knee in a similar game earlier this season. . “I've had some flashbacks. It's unfortunate because I didn't mean to hurt anyone. It's just in those situations where I have to protect myself because I've been in so many situations where I'm always on the bad end of it.”

After the game, referee Zach Zarba told a pool reporter that the three officials and the replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey, agreed that a blatant 1, not a blatant 2, was the appropriate call for an Embiid foul on Robinson.

Zarba said they considered the mistake “unnecessary,” even though it “did not rise to the level of excessive contact.”

Thibodeau didn't seem to agree — and he didn't think Embiid's takedown of Robinson was the only blatant offense the 76ers center committed Thursday. When asked about Embiid's brazen antics in a postgame press conference, Thibodeau responded without hesitation.

“Which one?” Asked. “Who did they call or who didn’t they call?”

Thibodeau was referring to a play earlier in the first quarter when Embiid tried to pass Hartenstein and hit him with a knee to the groin. Officials described ball play as a common foul after the review.

Meanwhile, Hart knew what to expect after Embiid fouled Robinson, especially under the circumstances. The previous 72 hours of discussion had surrounded the 76ers' dissatisfaction with management, both over their public complaints and the league's admissions. The final minute report of the second game concluded that the referees made two significant errors in the final minute. If those fouls, one on Hart and one on Jalen Brunson, were counted correctly right now, the 76ers would likely leave New York with a win.

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“We knew what Game 3 was going to be,” Hart said. “Come on now, we knew, especially (with) how Game 2 ended. We knew what it would be like. Am I surprised (they didn't call Hardcore 2 on Embiid)? never. Ultimately, we now have to move forward.”

So the Knicks will try to do that with Game 4 at 1pm (ET) on Sunday.

It is unclear whether Robinson will be available to play. Thibodeau said he had not yet spoken with the medical team at the time of his availability after the game, and the Knicks have not announced the status of their center.

Whether he plays or not, this series is now up for grabs with a chance for the Sixers to tie it at home. But if Embiid's night had ended after his foul on Robinson, the story might have ended another way.

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)