Joel Embiid’s ‘dirty’ flagrant foul on Mitchell Robinson is turning point of Game 3

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PHILADELPHIA — Sometimes, the best way to catch fire is to play with it.

Joel Embiid was halfway to the locker room, kneeing one center in the crotch and pulling another down by the ankle. He pushed the limits of an ejection from Game 3 of a first-round playoff series, which could have meant a premature ending to the Philadelphia 76ers’ season.

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

The reigning MVP went for 50 points in a 125-114 beatdown of the New York Knicks on Thursday, handing the Sixers their first win in a contentious series, which they now trail 2-1. He sliced the Knicks up 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 of the Knicks combined — and sank 19 of his freebies.

His third quarter was basketball perfection.

Embiid baited the Knicks’ defenders into fouls. When they left him open, he made them pay, sinking all four of his 3-point attempts. When they didn’t, it didn’t matter. He would splash in a midrange fadeaway anyway. He dropped 18 points just in that period.

“We gotta do better,” New York head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Gotta do better.”

Of course, in another world, Embiid never receives the chance to reach a new playoff career high. In that world, a knee to Isaiah Hartenstein’s groin or a yank at Mitchell Robinson’s ankle ends his evening early.

With four and a half minutes to go in the first quarter and the Knicks up three, OG Anunoby dumped off a pass to Robinson, who was under the basket with a sprawled-out Embiid beside him. The 76ers center had collapsed trying to rip the ball away from Anunoby. As Robinson rose for a two-handed dunk, Embiid grabbed at his opponent’s ankle, dragging him to the floor.

After review, officials deemed the play a flagrant 1, handing the Knicks two free throws and the ball. Of course, it didn’t have to go that way.

Donte DiVincenzo called the tug “dirty.” Hartenstein said it was “not a basketball play.”

“Mitch is what, 280 (pounds)?” Josh Hart said. “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. That one was reckless.”

Maybe if it were the regular season, if a playoff series didn’t hinge on the presence of the reigning MVP, if the 76ers hadn’t just filed an unofficial grievance with the NBA about officiating, if Game 2 hadn’t ended frantically and a Last Two Minute Report marked up with red, officials decide otherwise. Maybe they consider Embiid’s swipe on Robinson a flagrant 2, which would have earned him an automatic ejection. After all, he was not making a play on the ball.

Alas, the evening swerved in the other direction.

Robinson, who returned in March from ankle surgery that sidelined him for four months, looked hobbled for the remainder of the first half, favoring his left side, the same one that underwent the operation. At halftime, the Knicks ruled him out for the rest of the game with a left ankle sprain. He departed the arena while wearing a walking boot.

With Robinson out and with Hartenstein in foul trouble, Embiid began to roast.

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

Following the game, referee Zach Zarba told a pool reporter that all three officials and the replay center in Secaucus, N.J., were unanimous that a flagrant 1, not a flagrant 2, was the proper call for Embiid’s foul on Robinson.

They deemed the foul “unnecessary,” though it “did not rise to the level of excessive contact,” Zarba said.

Thibodeau did not seem to agree — and he did not believe Embiid’s takedown of Robinson was the only flagrant the 76ers center committed Thursday. When asked about Embiid’s flagrant in a postgame news conference, Thibodeau responded without hesitation.

“Which one?” he asked. “The one they called or the one they didn’t call?”

Thibodeau was referring to a play earlier in the first quarter when Embiid attempted to step through Hartenstein and kneed him in the groin. Officials dubbed a ballsy play a common foul after review.

Meanwhile, Hart knew what to expect after Embiid fouled Robinson, especially given the circumstances. The previous 72 hours of discussion had surrounded the 76ers’ displeasure with officiating, both because of their public complaints and the league’s admissions. Game 2’s Last Two Minute Report concluded refs missed two vital fouls inside the final minute. Had those fouls, one on Hart and another on Jalen Brunson, been called properly in the moment, then the 76ers probably leave New York with a win.

“We knew what Game 3 was going to be. Come on now,” Hart said “We knew, especially (with) how Game 2 ended. We knew what it was going to be. Am I surprised (they didn’t call a flagrant 2 on Embiid)? Not at all. At the end of the day, now we’ve just got to move on.”

So the Knicks will attempt to do that with Game 4 at 1 p.m. (ET) Sunday.

It’s unclear if Robinson will be available to play. Thibodeau said he was yet to speak to the medical team at the time of his postgame availability, and the Knicks have not announced their center’s status.

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

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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