Sixers' Game 3 win showcased best – and worst – of Embiid

In dropping a playoff career-high 50 points Thursday to drag his 76ers back into their first-round series against the Knicks, Joel Embiid displayed the best of his outrageous skill set.

With a gimpy left knee sapping most of his explosiveness and his ability to impose his will in the paint, the 7-foot, 280-pounder buried New York under a hail of jumpers. After scoring his first two field goals inside, 10 of Embiid’s final 11 makes were recorded as jump shots. The lone second-half field goal that wasn’t? A balletic, driving finger roll no player his size should be able to pull off, let alone with three opponents on his back.

When he wasn’t bludgeoning the Knicks with his jumper, Embiid – who made five of his seven 3-point attempts – was living at the free-throw line. Say what you will about the way he gets there, but drawing fouls is part of the game, and the only thing more impressive (or infuriating, depending on your perspective) than Embiid’s ability to get to the free-throw line is the big man’s efficiency once there. The career 82.6% free-throw shooter scored 19 of his 50 points from the charity stripe on 21 attempts.

By the time Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series concluded, Embiid had become the sixth player in postseason history to score at least 50 points on 68% shooting.

Shortly after the final buzzer, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that in addition to his ailing knee, Embiid has been dealing with Bell’s palsy. That likely explains why Embiid – who has recently been spotted wearing sunglasses indoors – was covering his face while addressing reporters after Game 2; a postgame scrum that had some criticizing the reigning MVP for appearing defeated with his team down 2-0.

Of course, Embiid also ensured the Sixers would still win the series during that scrum; an audacious proclamation with Philadelphia needing to win four of five at the time. Seventy-two hours after talking the talk, Embiid walked the walk despite the fact he literally can’t walk at full strength right now.

That’s legacy-defining stuff, which is what we should expect from the guy who was on his way to repeating as MVP before suffering the knee injury that still has him hobbling.

Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends regarding Embiid’s Game 3 performance – or his postseason legacy.

Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBA / Getty Images

Had the big man’s first-quarter flagrant foul on Knicks center Mitchell Robinson been dealt with appropriately, Embiid would’ve been ejected, and the Sixers would have one foot in the grave by now.

Philly’s passionate fans would counter that if Game 2 was officiated correctly, the series would’ve shifted to the City of Brotherly Love with the two teams squared at one win apiece. Still, there’s a difference between a standard missed or incorrect call and what Embiid did to Robinson.

After nearly taking Robinson’s legs out while flopping in an unsuccessful attempt to draw a foul on Knicks forward OG Anunoby, a frustrated Embiid yanked Robinson by the leg while New York’s big man was airborne. Robinson finished the first half but was ruled out of the second due to a left ankle injury that has cast doubt on his Game 4 status.

Embiid’s reckless flailing has always been more hazardous than that of his peers due to his sheer size, but this was more sinister than an irresponsible flop. Even for Embiid’s biggest supporters, it’s hard to argue this wasn’t an intent to injure his opponent.

Had officials handed down a flagrant 2 rather than a flagrant 1, Embiid would’ve been ejected from a must-win game for a team that is supposed to be planning a deep playoff run, not a first-round exit.

Even after dodging that bullet, Embiid appeared to be teetering on the edge of getting himself tossed throughout what was an uneven first half. In addition to his aggressive complaints after every whistle that didn’t go his way, there were more suspect in-game maneuvers, like the unnaturally outstretched leg that hit Robinson’s groin.

Simply put, Embiid lost the plot during the first half in a game his team could least afford for that to happen. And it’s not the first time. While Embiid’s unsuccessful playoff history can be partially tied to rotten injury luck, his overall play and general demeanor when the Sixers have had their backs against the wall have left much to be desired.

Luckily for Embiid, the refs who enraged him just days ago allowed him to fight another half Thursday, which ultimately helped his Sixers live to see another day. Even in Embiid’s physically diminished state, Philadelphia can’t survive without him.

After the greatest performance of his checkered postseason career, it’s on Embiid to ensure the otherwordly gifts that allowed him to overcome adversity and torch the Knicks remain the story this postseason – not the foolishness that too often accompanies his injuries this time of year.

Joseph Casciaro is theScore’s senior content producer.