Joel Embiid — battling Bell’s palsy — turns in 50-point masterpiece

PHILADELPHIA – Joel Embiid left the podium and entered the halls of the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday evening, wearing dark black sunglasses on his face. He had worn them for most of the evening after the Philadelphia 76ers preserved their season with a grueling Game 3 win over the New York Knicks; in the locker room while freezing his leg and at a press conference in front of reporters and cameras.

Over the past week and a half, Embiid has been suffering from Bell’s palsy, which has weakened the muscles on the left side of his face. It started with severe migraines last week, just a day or two before the 76ers beat the Miami Heat in a Play-In Tournament game to clinch seventh place. It lingered, leaving his mouth down and his eyes dry, blurry and in constant need of drops.

This situation is a nuisance, he said, but it is not a deterrent. This season has tested Embiid in several ways. He saw an NBA All-Star teammate demand his retirement, and a torn left meniscus erase two months of what had been an MVP-level campaign. The 76ers had to preserve their season and win just to make the playoffs. Their hopes and safe passage have always depended on Embiid.

They did it again on Thursday in a resounding Game 3 win, when Embiid delivered his best playoff performance to date. Hampered by his still-faltering knee, and now hampered by this recent illness, he dropped 50 points on the Knicks in a 125-114 victory that brought Philadelphia to 2-1 in their first-round series.

Embiid was dominant and efficient. He made 13 of 19 shots and made 21 free throws. He catalyzed the 76ers to a 43-point third quarter when they erased a halftime deficit and took control of the game. As the 76ers’ season seemed to be faltering, just one loss away from a nearly over series, Embiid rose to the forefront once again.

Of course, he did it his way. He almost lost control in the first quarter and was almost ejected – probably should have been – when he followed up an offensive foul with a Flagrant 1 a few possessions later. While lying on the ground, Embiid took down opposing center Mitchell Robinson, who was jumping over him for a dunk. The play infuriated the Knicks; Donte DiVincenzo called it “dirty.” But that served as a reprimand and nothing more for Embiid. Instead, he overpowered the Knicks the rest of the night.

Tyrese Maxey scored 25 points, Cameron Payne came off the bench for 11 and the Sixers drained 48.4 percent of their 31 3s. Yet it was Embiid who carried them once again.

He edged out Jalen Brunson, who finally came out of his two-game slump. Brunson scored 39 points and dished out 13 assists after missing 39 of his first 55 shots in this series and it still wasn’t enough. Not when Embiid tormented the Knicks inside and out. Embiid made five 3s and committed seven shooting fouls. The Knicks deployed one after the other to try to stop him, but were unable to do so. Isaiah Hartenstein committed five fouls, Robinson only played 12 minutes due to an ankle injury that forced him to miss the second half and still committed three fouls.

“I was lucky,” Embiid said. “I took a few shots. But I have to keep taking them, press on that. I have to continue to trust myself. Especially because physical capabilities are somewhat limited.”

Embiid had been slowed earlier in the series by his left knee, which he aggravated in the first game. He had missed 30 games with a torn left meniscus after surgery in February and was injured again. On Thursday, however, he seemed fit again. But the constant series of injuries and afflictions have worn Embiid down. He revealed his frustration while explaining his new episode of Bell’s palsy. This sometimes made him wonder why he was such a magnet for bad luck.

“I say it every day,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. Every year you start asking questions like ‘Why?’ Every year. It’s really annoying. Maybe it’s just meant to be. You just have to take it as it is. The only thing I’m not going to do is give up, no matter what, I have to keep pushing, I have to keep fighting, I have to keep putting my body on the line.

He did it several times. At 7 feet tall and 280 pounds, he inflicted pain and was treated for numerous injuries. They left an imprint on him.

On Thursday, it almost got him kicked out of the game. Embiid grabbed Robinson, he said, because he feared he would be hurt again. He injured his left knee after Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga fell on it last January. That image, Embiid said, flashed through his mind when he saw Robinson standing on top of him in the first quarter. This put Robinson in danger, although officials deemed it not worthy of a Flagrant 2.

“I kind of had flashbacks when he got there,” Embiid said, rationalizing. “It’s unfortunate. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. In those situations, I have to protect myself because I’ve been in way too many situations where I’m the victim on the wrong side. It was unfortunate. But physical play. They want to bring their physicality. We can also be physical, and we are. It goes both ways. I get pushed around everywhere and I can take it. not get out of myself I just have to continue to be myself, aggressive and physical.


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

This is almost the game that turned the game and the series around. The Sixers could have been sunk without him and without him and were looking at another early playoff exit. Instead, they will get to play Game 4 on Sunday with a chance to even their series with the Knicks.

Embiid predicted this late Monday night after a disastrous finish to Game 2. It was a prediction delivered with the kind of confidence that comes with an MVP award and a place among the league’s best players. The Sixers, he said, should have led 2-o in the series. The Sixers, he said, will win either way.

Predictions are easy. On Thursday, Embiid backed it up. He became the third player in Sixers history to score at least 50 points in a playoff game, and the first in NBA history to do so on fewer than 20 shots. Embiid hammered the Knicks with post-ups and drives to the rim. He rushed off screens and shot away from deep.

The 76ers followed suit. They enjoyed a physical game that at times became hectic, or even more so. After lamenting the officials in Game 2, they committed seven fewer fouls than the Knicks and made 14 more free throws. The third quarter surge was the difference and Philadelphia held off New York in the fourth.

Now it’s a series again and the Sixers have regained their composure. Embiid never lost his.

(Embiid photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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