After days of frustrating indecision — or gamesmanship, depending on which side of the mystery you were on — 10 minutes before game time Saturday, the 76ers said Joel Embiid would suit up and be in the starting lineup for Game 4 of the first-round series against the Nets.
If the uncertain status was frustrating, it didn’t exactly catch the Nets off guard, as they clearly had a plan for the 7-foot, 260-pound center. A part of it was to try to frustrate him, bait him and hope for the best. And that came to a head with 7:42 remaining in the third quarter when Embiid raked hard across Jarrett Allen as he blocked a shot by the Nets center.
While Embiid argued that it was all ball, Jared Dudley rushed in from near midcourt, shoving him. Jimmy Butler came to Embiid’s defense, shoving Dudley. Then all of them — plus Ben Simmons and referee Ed Malloy — tumbled into the front row at Barclays Center.
Embiid simply walked away, content to let the officials sort out the damage before taking over the game himself. He went from a game-time decision to the difference-maker with 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks to help the 76ers to a 112-108 win and a 3-1 series lead.
“I’m physical. And then I’ll let you decide how dominant I am, how people can’t really stop me, they’ve got to foul me,” Embiid said. “Today, Dudley, I didn’t think it was a flagrant foul. I saw the replay and felt like I got all ball. So I have no idea why it was a flagrant foul. I’m not that type of player. Any chance that I get, I try to go for the ball. And then if I feel like I made a mistake, I always apologize.
“At the same time, that’s also a mind game. I know these guys are going to come at me because they want me to retaliate. I’ve got to be the mature one and just stay cool and not react. Today, I could have reacted but I feel like my team needed me more than they needed Jared Dudley, so I’ve just got to stay cool and mature and do my job.”
The 76ers won Game 3 without Embiid after he was listed as questionable. When he was listed as doubtful for this game, it might have seemed as if the Sixers would try to manage without him, take their chances and save him for a return in Game 5.
“The notion of comfort scares the life out of me,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said before the game. “I don’t ever feel comfortable. House money doesn’t come into my vocabulary. If you can get today, you take a lot of oxygen out of the series. It’s not the be all or end all, but it’s a significant blow.
“And so my whole thing with Joel is and always will be — and it’s dictated by the doctors more than the coach — is what harm are we [doing by] putting him in? If the answer is none, then you play him. And then it gets down to if the answer is whatever level it is, then you question it. But to hold on to him and house money, I don’t see the world like that at all and I’m certainly not coaching that way this afternoon.”
When the Nets built a seven-point lead with 5:20 remaining, it might have seemed a wrongheaded strategy, with Embiid shouldering a huge load and in danger of being out of action for a fifth game. But Embiid scored eight straight points and then assisted on Tobias Harris' layup to put Philadelphia up 104-103.
With the Nets up one, the 76ers inbounded with 25 seconds left, trying to feed Embiid inside. The pass eluded him but he lunged to save it and tapped it out to Mike Scott in the corner for the go-ahead three-pointer. He’d saved the 76ers and afterward was just as happy to see that his teammates had saved him, coming to his defense when Dudley went at him earlier in the game.
“The fact that [Butler] had my back, I’m going to pay that fine,” Embiid said. “That was great to see.”