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Knicks drop Game 3 to 76ers as Joel Embiid explodes after avoiding ejection for ‘dirty’ foul

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PHILADELPHIA — The Knicks lost a scrap in the sandbox to the Sixers and the MVP version of Joel Embiid, who averted an ejection after a “dirty” foul on Mitchell Robinson.

Embiid dropped 50 points in the Sixers’ 125-114 victory Thursday night, keeping the first-round series on serve but not without yet another officiating controversy.

Just seven minutes into the contest, the reigning MVP fell to the court and grabbed Robinson’s legs, dragging the Knicks center to the court as he attempted a dunk.

Joel Embiid goes up for a layup after driving past Mitchell Robinson (right) and Josh Hart during the Knicks’ loss to the 76ers. AP

Robinson later sprained his ankle and wasn’t available to the media, but was spotted leaving the arena in a walking boot.

Although the Embiid play likely didn’t cause Robinson’s ankle sprain, it was a significant moment because a Flagrant 2 would’ve automatically ejected Embiid. Instead, following a review, the officials issued a Flagrant 1.

“It was dirty,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “It was dirty.”

Added Josh Hart, “We’re just happy Mitch didn’t get a serious injury on that. I’m all for tough fouls, tough, playoff fouls, but that’s something that can put a guy out for a significant amount of time. So we’re lucky he didn’t get seriously hurt during that time.”

Embiid, who took over in the third quarter with 18 points, explained his drag-down by saying he had “flashbacks” of when Golden State’s Jonathan Kuminga landed on his knee in January and led to surgery.

“It’s unfortunate because I didn’t mean to hurt anybody,” Embiid said. “It’s just in those situations where I have to protect myself because I’ve been in way too many situations where I’m always at the bad end of it.”

Officiating crew chief Zach Zarba stood by the decision to issue a Flagrant 1.

Jalen Brunson drives past Nicolas Batum after taking advantage of a pick set by Precious Achiuwa during the Knicks’ loss. Corey Sipkin for the New York Post

“The unnecessary contact rose to the level of a Flagrant 1 but we were unanimous that this did not rise to the level of excessive contact, unnecessary and excessive, which would have been a Flagrant 2 ejection,” Zarba told a pool reporter. “That’s why we kept it a Flagrant 1.”

So Embiid continued to play and he dominated. He set a career high for the playoffs while hitting 13 of his 19 shots with eight rebounds, his big third quarter allowing the Sixers to end the frame on a 32-19 run to take a 13-point advantage heading into the fourth.

The result meant a 2-1 series lead for the Knicks, with Game 4 not until Sunday afternoon in Wells Fargo Center. No team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit, so Thursday was essentially an elimination game for the Sixers and they played with that type of desperation.

It was spicy early.

Tyrese Maxey slams home a dunk during the second half of the Knicks’ loss. Corey Sipkin for the New York Post

Three plays were reviewed in the opening eight minutes, all Sixers fouls. Kyle Lowry was whistled for an early Flagrant 1 after slapping Donte DiVincenzo in the face on a Knicks drive. A couple of minutes later, Embiid appeared to knee Isaiah Hartenstein in the groin and was given an offensive foul.

Not long after that, Embiid grabbed Robinson by the legs and pulled him down.

“Each game is gonna be different, so you just gotta respond,” Tom Thibodeau said. “This is playoff basketball. It’s gonna go up. It’s gonna escalate, and we gotta bring it. We gotta bring it. My thing is, there’s two teams and they responded and now we gotta respond. We gotta do a lot better. We gotta fix it.”

The reigning MVP was eager to muck up the game after declaring the Sixers were the better team and would win the series. He pushed and menaced.

The Knicks physically dominated the games in MSG, and Embiid arrived on a mission not to let that happen again. He also took 21 free throws.

Josh Hart goes up for a layup after driving past Joel Embiid during the Knicks’ loss. Corey Sipkin for the New York Post

“The biggest thing is the free throws. That gets him in rhythm,” Hartenstein said. “Just playing more team defense. He made six 3s. Most of them were contested. So sometimes you got to live with that. But just playing more team defense and being more physical and not let him get to the foul line where he can catch rhythm.”

Jalen Brunson had his best game of the series while recording 39 points with 13 assists. But defense was an issue for the Knicks, who allowed the Sixers to shoot 55% and hit 15 threes.

“Yeah, he had a good game and that’s something we know he’s capable of,” Hart said of Brunson. “He knows he can make shots and that’s good in terms of confidence for him going into Sunday. We gotta make sure we’re focused and ready for Sunday.”

The atmosphere was, as expected, loud.

Donte DiVincenzo slams home a dunk over Tyrese Maxey during the Knicks’ loss. Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

Sixers supporters dominated the crowd but Knicks fans also showed up, boosted in spirit and confidence by the 2-0 series lead.

There were two dominant storylines heading into the matchup.

The most prevalent concerned the officiating and the idea the Sixers were cheated out of Game 2.

It prompted the Sixers to issue a list of grievances through the media and Embiid to declare his team should be winning the series, which Hart shrugged off.

“I don’t care, they’re not. We’re up 2-0,” Hart said at the morning shootaround. “When the NBA starts basing the series on what we think, then I would care a little bit more. We’re up 2-0, right now we’re just focused on trying to get our third one.”

It didn’t work. Embiid avoided ejection and was a force.

But, by the end, he was limping on his surgically-repaired left knee and acknowledged he’s been dealing with a bout of Bell’s palsy in his face.

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