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3 observations after Embiid explodes for 50 points, lights up Knicks in Game 3 win

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In need of something special to gain a foothold in their first-round playoff series vs. the Knicks, the Sixers were grateful to have Joel Embiid on Thursday night. 

Embiid recorded a playoff career-high 50 points on 13-for-19 shooting, eight rebounds and four assists, leading the Sixers to a 125-114 Game 3 win at Wells Fargo Center. 

Tyrese Maxey added 25 points and seven assists. Knicks star Jalen Brunson posted 39 points and 13 assists.

The Sixers will aim to even the series at two games apiece Sunday afternoon. Here are observations on their Embiid-fueled Game 3 victory: 

First-quarter flagrants 

The Sixers were purposeful about establishing Embiid in the post to begin the game. 

He spun baseline around Isaiah Hartenstein and laid the ball in to open the scoring. On the Sixers’ third possession, he drew a foul against the Knicks big man. 

New York went up 10-6 on a transition Brunson three-pointer, but the Sixers stormed back with a 7-0 run. Crucially, that spurt included no points from the Embiid-Maxey duo, which had averaged 64.5 points over the series’ first two games.

Kelly Oubre Jr. drove strongly with his right hand and threw down a slam. He then nailed a three-pointer off Chicago action (curling up from a down screen into an Embiid handoff). Tobias Harris tipped in a missed Maxey layup. 

The first quarter was defined by amped-up physicality and intense scrutiny over the officials’ decisions. That wasn’t shocking after the Sixers’ well-publicized ire over late-game officiating mistakes in their Game 2 defeat. 

Kyle Lowry was called for a Flagrant 1 foul about five minutes into the night when he struck Donte DiVincenzo in the face as the Knicks guard surged to the rim. Following DiVincenzo’s foul shots, Hartenstein toppled over as Embiid brushed past him. That led to another officials’ review and ultimately an offensive foul on Embiid. 

Predictably, Embiid forced the issue against Hartenstein on the Sixers’ very next possession, sweeping the ball through hard and getting a second whistle on the 25-year-old center. 

Embiid soon had his second foul, too. On a play that had the New York bench up in arms, Embiid swiped at Mitchell Robinson’s legs while he went up for a layup. The Knicks’ anger was easy to understand, given Embiid appeared to intentionally undercut Robinson as he was in a vulnerable position. 

Upon the third review of the first eight minutes, Embiid was assessed a Flagrant 1, escaping without a Flagrant 2 (an automatic ejection) for “unnecessary and excessive contact.”

Aiming to match the Knicks’ physicality and refusing to get pushed around is fine, but that sort of play is much too reckless from the Sixers’ best player. 

Payne ready for his moment

Though De’Anthony Melton was available Thursday night, he did not play. Cameron Payne ended up being the Sixers guard to make a momentum-flipping impact early in the second quarter.

After Bojan Bogdanovic hit a three to give the Knicks a 32-27 edge, Payne drove and kicked to Nicolas Batum for a corner triple. Payne then fired in back-to-back long-range jumpers of his own. 

He’d also effectively jumped right into the action during the Sixers’ play-in tournament win over the Heat.

“My family’s always there, so I’m going to be locked in,” Payne said last week. “At any point in time, I know I could go out there and have an impact, help the team win. I bounce around all the time. If y’all see me bouncing around during timeouts, that’s me staying ready.” 

Payne, who’d played three minutes in Game 1 and zero in Game 2, tallied eight key second-quarter points for the Sixers. In contrast, Buddy Hield had another quiet night. The player the Sixers had viewed as their main trade deadline acquisition went scoreless and played only four first-half minutes.

Fouls were again in the spotlight for the back half of the second quarter. Embiid drew Hartenstein’s third personal with 9:10 to go in the second period, which was especially important because Robinson’s movement was a major problem. 

Robinson, who’d missed 50 games this regular season with a left ankle injury, was listed as questionable going into Game 3 with a “left ankle injury management” designation. Every trip he made up and down the court was seriously labored. When Robinson got his third foul late in the second quarter, Precious Achiuwa finally received his first minutes of the series. The Knicks later ruled Robinson out with a sprained left ankle.

Embiid picked up his third foul at the 6:27 mark of the second for charging into Robinson. Sixers head coach Nick Nurse kept his superstar center in and Embiid was responsible about avoiding any further foul trouble. 

Embiid and the Sixers catch fire

The Knicks took a five-point lead early in the third quarter largely because Brunson had by far his best outing of the series after going 16 for 55 from the floor over Games 1 and 2.

On the night he lifted his Most Improved Player award, the Sixers’ All-Star guard started slowly. Maxey played a subpar first half, shooting just 3 for 10 from the field. He was sharp on both ends of the court to open the third quarter, though. Maxey featured in a 9-2 Sixers run with a steal and slam, as well as a step-back three. 

Although New York briefly stabilized following a timeout, Maxey wasn’t done cooking. With immense, fully deserved confidence, Maxey drained a deep three to give the Sixers a 71-66 lead. 

Embiid then joined the long-range shooting party, sinking the jumpers he’d narrowly missed in Games 1 and 2. The 7-footer knocked down three-pointers on three consecutive Sixers possessions. Maxey also did poised, high-quality work handling the Knicks’ blitzes during that stretch. He found Lowry open for a corner three that stretched the Sixers’ advantage to double digits. 

The lights-out shooting from the Sixers’ stars was contagious. Oubre and Payne drilled jumpers late in the third and Embiid fittingly capped the quarter’s scoring with yet another long-distance shot. 

Incredibly, the Sixers shot 17 for 22 from the field and 9 for 12 behind the arc in the third period. Individually, Embiid was 5 for 5 from three-point range after halftime.

The Sixers’ 13-point lead was down to nine by the time he re-entered in the fourth quarter. Embiid’s presence ensured that everything finished up just fine.

Ten seconds after he checked in, Embiid had Hartenstein off to the bench with his fifth foul. The seven-time All-Star reached his playoff career high with a tightly guarded three.

Even with Embiid playing through Bell’s palsy and on a bothersome left knee, Game 3 was a reminder that he’s a powerful, well-rounded future Hall of Famer with the tools to beat whatever a defense throws at him.

The Sixers still trail in this series and have a difficult road ahead, but Embiid sometimes makes anything feel possible.

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