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Joel Embiid's “dirty” flagrant foul on Mitchell Robinson is the 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, kneeling one in the middle of the crotch and pulling the other down by the ankle. He pushed the boundaries of an ejection from Game 3 of a first-round playoff series that could have prematurely ended the Philadelphia 76ers' season.

Instead, Embiid was in the mid-hundreds by the end of the night.

The reigning MVP went for 50 points in a 125-114 loss to the New York Knicks on Thursday, giving the Sixers their first win in a controversial series, which they now trail 2-1. He cut the Knicks to pieces 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 basketball perfection.

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Embiid lured the Knicks defenders into fouling. When they left him open, he made them pay, sinking all four of his three-point attempts. When they didn't, it didn't matter. He was going to splash into a midrange fadeaway anyway. He dropped 18 points in that period alone.

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

Of course, in another world, Embiid will never get the chance to reach a new playoff career high. In that world, a knee in Isaiah Hartenstein's groin or a tug on Mitchell Robinson's ankle puts an early end to his evening.

With four and a half minutes left in the first quarter and the Knicks up by three, OG Anunoby dumped a pass to Robinson, who was under the basket with an outstretched Embiid next to him. The 76ers center had collapsed as they tried to snatch the ball away from Anunoby. As Robinson rose for a two-handed dunk, Embiid grabbed his opponent's ankle and dragged him to the ground.

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

Donte DiVincenzo called the tugboat “dirty.” Hartenstein said it was “not a basketball game.”

“Mitch is what, 280 (pounds)?” said Josh Hart. “You grab (him) by the leg when he's jumping and you don't let him come down, that's something that just a sprained ankle would be a lucky injury. That was reckless.”

Maybe if it was 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 complaint with the NBA about their performance, if Game 2 hadn't ended in a frenzy and a Last Two Minute Report marked in red, officials decide otherwise. Maybe they'll consider Embiid's swipe on Robinson a flagrant 2, which would have automatically ejected him. After all, he wasn't playing with the ball.

Unfortunately the evening turned the other way.

Robinson, who returned from ankle surgery in March 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 remainder of the game due to a sprained left ankle. He left the arena wearing a walking boot.

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

“I was trying to make sure he didn'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 in a similar action earlier this season . . “I had some kind of flashbacks. It's a shame because I didn't mean to hurt anyone. It is precisely those situations where I have to protect myself, because I have been in far too many situations where I was always on the bad side.”

After the game, referee Zach Zarba told a pool reporter that all three officials and the replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey, were unanimous that a flagrant 1, and not a flagrant 2, was the correct call for Embiid's foul on Robinson.

They found the violation “unnecessary,” although it “did not rise to the level of excessive contact,” Zarba said.

Thibodeau didn't seem to agree — and he didn't believe Embiid's takedown of Robinson was the only egregious attack the 76ers center committed Thursday. When asked about Embiid's egregious statements during a post-game press conference, Thibodeau responded without hesitation.

“Which?” 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 tried to step through Hartenstein and kneed him in the groin. Officials called a bally play a common foul after review.

Meanwhile, Hart knew what to expect after Embiid fouled Robinson, especially considering the circumstances. The previous 72 hours of discussion had surrounded the 76ers' displeasure with their officeholders, both due to their public complaints and the league's admissions. The Game 2 Last Two Minute Report concluded that the referees missed two crucial errors in the final minute. Had those fouls, one on Hart and one on Jalen Brunson, been called correctly at the time, the 76ers would likely leave New York with a win.

“We knew what Game 3 was going to be. Come on,” Hart said. “We were especially cognizant (with) how Game 2 ended. We knew what it would be. Am I surprised (they didn't call a blatant 2 on Embiid)? Not at all. Ultimately, we just have to move on.”

So the Knicks will look to do that with Game 4 at 1:00 PM (ET) Sunday.

It's unclear if Robinson will be available to play. Thibodeau said he had yet to speak with the medical team at the time he was available after the game, and that the Knicks have not yet 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 at home. But if Embiid's night had ended after the foul on Robinson, the story might have ended a different way.

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

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