Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) in the 3rd quarter...

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) in the 3rd quarter in game 1 of an NBA playoff first round, Saturday. April 20, 2024, in Manhattan at Madison Square Garden. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

PHILADELPHIA — Bring it on, Joel Embiid.

You say your Philadelphia 76ers have a better team. You say that the 76ers, not the Knicks, deserve to be up 2-0 in this first-round series. You even go so far as to summon your inner Patrick Ewing and predict that you will ultimately win this playoff series.

Well, it’s on you to figure this out as the series moves to your home court for Game 3 on Thursday. Slowed by injuries or not, you are the most decorated player on the court, the only one who has ever won a MVP. More than any player in this series, it’s your legacy that is on the line, and it is you who will be blamed if your team goes down in the first round.

The Knicks have twice come from behind to beat your team. There was plenty of whining after that last loss, some of it deservedly so after the heart-wrenching defeat in Game 2 that featured some non-calls that didn’t exactly go your way. We will overlook that your body language after the loss was that of a man defeated, yet your words were about as defiant as it gets.

“We should be 2-0. We’re good,” Embiid said after the Knicks scored eight points in 21 seconds to win, 104-101. “We’re going to win this series. We’re going to win this. We know what we gotta fix. We did a better job today so we’re going to fix it. We’re the better team, and we’re going to keep on fighting.”

Fighting words? Sure. Still, the Knicks have basically brushed off your speech like leftover crumbs after a gourmet dinner. When asked after practice on Wednesday if what you said was “bulletin board material,” Jalen Brunson basically shrugged.

“It’s the playoffs, if you need any more ammunition now, then I don’t really know if you’re in the right business,” Brunson said.

While your prediction was bold, Embiid, it’s not entirely accurate: You may have the best players — Tyrese Maxey equals Brunson and no one on the Knicks equals you — but it’s clear you don’t have the best team.

The level of trust the Knicks showed in each other at the end of Game 2 is something that has been missing from every 76ers team that you’ve been on. The Knicks are a team with one superstar in Brunson and a bunch of role players who all take turns stepping up when they must.

The Knicks don’t have stars like James Harden who didn’t want to go there. They don’t have a superstar like Ben Simmons who passed up a dunk in a big game. Not a single member of the Knicks rotation was a lottery pick. Brunson famously went with the first pick in the second round while Donte DiVincenzo is the highest pick having been taken at 17.

Despite their lack of pedigree, the Knicks have a bunch of players who believe they are going to win every game, even a game where they are down by five points with just under 28 seconds left. Yes, yes, yes, officials missed a Knicks’ foul on Maxey on that critical late turnover. Yes, yes, yes, they seemed to ignore the fact that 76ers coach Nick Nurse was screaming for a timeout. But the poise and trust in one another that the Knicks showed in that chaotic stretch where they hit two three-pointers in 14 seconds says everything you need to know about this team.

“I’m just proud of the fact that they found a way to win and what transpired was that nothing was really going our way and we made it go our way,” coach Tom Thibodeau said Wednesday.

Embiid, you have proved to be a great player over and over. You proved that again in Game 2 when you came up with a monster performance, finishing with 34 points, 10 rebounds and six assists despite the fact you missed two months with a knee injury and are not 100%.

What you haven’t proved yet is that you are a great leader. Your team is on its third coach trying to get you past the second round of the playoffs. Unless something changes quickly, you might not get past the first round this year.

Bring it on Embiid, the clock is ticking.


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