The Philadelphia 76ers went into Brooklyn and came away with a back-breaking win, putting them up 3-0 in this best of seven game first-round series. Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey, and co. took it down 102-97, and now they’ll aim to close things out in a clean sweep Game 4, which tips off Saturday at 1:00 P.M.
But that was a crazy game!
We wondered if Joel Embiid might get ejected in the early going. You knew the Nets were desperate. Dorian Finney-Smith and Royce O’Neal took some hard shots on Joel in Game 1, Nic Claxton delivered some vicious blows in Game 2 and perhaps in part because officials were so oddly reluctant to call flagrant fouls in Philadelphia, chippiness reached a fever pitch on Thursday night in Brooklyn.
It started with this play, when Claxton, after a finish, tries to taunt Embiid by stepping over him.
Embiid kicks Claxton after trying to step over him pic.twitter.com/l23qaOFvHV— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) April 20, 2023
Joel kicks at him, getting more thigh than groin, luckily for both parties. The presumptive MVP follows through but catches only air on that part. It was nothing at all like Draymond Green’s weighted-force body stomp of Domantas Sabonis that earned the Warriors forward an ejection and suspension, and sent the Kings All-Star for medical scans, revealing a contusion of the sternum.
But that play from Draymond was on fan’s minds. Would the NBA come down a bit harsh in order to crack down on fights? Apparently not on this play, as Embiid was handed a flagrant one, and Claxton a tech.
After the game, Embiid talked about it, per Ky Carlin SixersWire, reporting from Brooklyn:
“I honestly don’t remember the play,” he said with a smile.
When asked if he remembers Claxton being ejected after he picked up his second technical foul in the fourth quarter.
“Um, yes,” he said with a laugh.
Embiid then went on to discuss how the Nets were trying to get under his skin....
“The whole game,” he said. “You can see what they were doing. Just trying to get a rise out of me. I’m too valuable. Especially after the first one, I just understood I’m too valuable to get into this type of—that’s the second time hitting me in the back. That’s not reviewed. My back, my knee, they’re hitting me every single time which is fine.”
“It’s working for them, but I just got to keep going,” Embiid finished. “You could see what the game plan was. You gotta hit them. Make me frustrated so I could get ejected.”
In case you’re wondering what Embiid is referring to, here is some of that Nets strategy.
A hard one from Dorian Finney-Smith in Game 1, sends the six-time All-Star to the wood:
Should have been upgraded to a flagrant I think b/c you don’t want the stars 2nd guessing these plays. If they have to wonder if they’ll get sent hard to the wood with/out any additional penalty on the d, we’ll see more injuries and less star highlights— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 15, 2023
And then when Embiid says they got him “in the back,” here’s the first he likely means, from Claxton in Game 2:
Regardless of what Joel did, this is a dirty play from Claxton. That’s a lot of force into a player’s back. https://t.co/oTUM0Ecl6U— Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT (@3cbPerformance) April 21, 2023
Philadelphia lobbied for that to be reviewed for a flagrant. It was not.
If it had been, maybe Clax would have thought twice about trying it again on Thursday. These low back shots are now clearly taking their toll, accumulating, and this time, sent Embiid limping off to the locker room for treatment:
Doc Rivers guessed the reason Embiid left the floor for the locker room was because of his back from one of those hard falls.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 21, 2023
Grant Hill on TNT referred to the play as a “shiver,” borrowing some WWE terminology.
It’s the second season in a row we’re witnessing an overmatched team lean on the officials for help in the first-round and also muck things up a bit with some really hard fouls to bludgeon, frustrate, and ultimately limit Joel Embiid.
The weirdest part of the whole evening, was when James Harden, of all people not involved in the rest of it, got ejected. He had been balling too, with 21 points on 15 attempts in just 29 minutes.
In a hysterical-if-it-wasn’t-so-detrimental-in-a-playoff-game-way, Harden was literally kicked out of this ballgame for throwing the type of basic off-arm clear out play we see on myriad possessions in your average ballgame.
It’s laughable James Harden got ejected for this. These knucklehead refs should be ejected instead. pic.twitter.com/EkA7HKqGGm— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) April 21, 2023
It looks like he gets more midsection than crotch, does it not? You be the judge above. Was that a fake or exaggerated low-blow reaction by Royce O’Neal? If so, kudos to him, and shame on the officials for getting duped so badly. If it was, fine, it was still clearly inadvertent.
Normally, that’s an offensive foul. But somehow the context of the game apparently turned it into an egregious ejection.
According to Carlin of SixersWire, Harden was understandably upset by what happened:
“Unacceptable,” said Harden. “Unacceptable flagrant-2. That’s the first time I’ve been ejected. I’m not labeled as a dirty player. I didn’t hit him in the private area. If somebody is draped on you defensively, it’s just a natural basketball reaction....”
“I didn’t hit him hard enough for him to fall down like that for a flagrant-2 is unacceptable,” Harden continued. “This is a playoff game. We’ve seen things around the league that are much worse than that play was. Honestly, I didn’t even think that was a foul on me, but yeah. That can’t happen.”
Harden then went on to say he didn’t even believe it was an offensive foul on him. He just believed it was a regular basketball play.
“I didn’t even think it was a foul on me!” he said. “Natural reaction, you use your off arm to get him off a little bit and that was it. It wasn’t like no wind up, elbow, none of that. I didn’t hit him in the private area, none of that. That can’t happen. It can’t happen.”
Tony Brothers, the lead official, commented to a pool reporter about Harden’s ejection. How would Brothers handle explaining what was so clearly some sort of makeup or tone-setting call?
“I didn’t even think it was a foul on me.”— NBACentral (@TheNBACentral) April 21, 2023
- James Harden on his flagrant 2
(Via @KyleNeubeck )
QUESTION: Why was Joel Embiid given a Flagrant foul 1 for kicking Claxton?
BROTHERS: The contact was deemed unnecessary and based on the point of contact to the leg, it didn’t rise to the level of excessive.
QUESTION: So, you deemed it not to go to a [flagrant foul] 2 based on where the contact was?
BROTHERS: The point of contact dictated that it was only unnecessary contact and not excessive, so yes.
QUESTION: Why was James Harden given a flagrant 2 for his foul on Royce O’Neale?
BROTHERS: Based on the point of contact directly to the groin, it rose to the level of excessive and ejection.
So, I guess they thought Harden aimed for a certain spot....
The lesson from Sixers-Nets: Don't hit someone directly in the nuts, just hit them adjacent to the nuts and you're finehttps://t.co/ctdLpPgdUz— Bryan Toporek (@btoporek) April 21, 2023
According to Derek Bodner of DailySix Newsletter, Harden admitted it was horrible to have to watch without being able to help: “Horrible. And I was having an okay game, like, you know what I mean? ... It can’t happen again, unless it’s called for. I’m happy we won the game.”
Thank goodness Tyrese Maxey helped save the day, huh?
25 PTS (10 in Q4) | 3 AST | 3 REB | 1 STL— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 21, 2023
hydrated by @BioSteelSports pic.twitter.com/kXzkQnBFQk
The Sixers got the win, but now we’ll await word to see just how healthy everyone is... and confirmation nobody will be suspended, I suppose. The Nets strategy, like Embiid says, worked in mucking up this game. The talent disparity between the two teams is vast. But by doing some taunts, some really hard fouls, and some well-timed flops, they’ve left the Sixers in need of some rest.
If Doc Rivers’ gang are able to advance, what shape will Embiid be in for the potential next series vs. Boston? Yes, I’m sleeping on the Hawks.
Philly’s front office should also get busy and ask the league about these offensive rebound “attempts” Claxton is going for. Because he has no play on the ball and all that’s happening are some well timed kidney shots that send your 2023 MVP to the locker room.
Nets coach Jacque Vaughn keeps using these octagon, and fighting metaphors. I wasn’t totally joking when I said everyone should mask up before Game 3, based on his recent comments:
"You got to hit somebody. If you want to win, you’ll hit somebody,” Nets coach Jacque Vaughn on his team fighting harder for rebounds.— DaveEarly (@DavidEarly) April 21, 2023
"You step into the octagon and you're not ready, you get knocked out." pic.twitter.com/CwR9yA9DyU
The NBA should want its stars to be as healthy as possible for the stretch run of the tournament. The Nets are getting away with quite a bit here. I think one flagrant in the first or second game of this series just to set a tone could have spared us a ton of ice baths and MRI’s we may now have coming.
Thank goodness for Maxey’s shooting, and Embiid’s timely block on Spencer Dinwiddie or this series would be feeling a whole lot uglier than it does now.