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

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PHILADELPHIA – Joel Embiid walked off stage late Thursday night and into the halls of the Wells Fargo Center, dark black sunglasses covering his face. He had worn them most of the night after the Philadelphia 76ers preserved their season with a grueling Game 3 victory over the New York Knicks; in the locker room while he froze his leg and at a press conference in front of reporters and cameras.

For the past week and a half, Embiid has had Bell’s palsy, which has weakened the muscles on the left side of his face. It started with a bad migraine last week, just a day or so before the 76ers defeated the Miami Heat in a Play-In Tournament game to clinch the No. 7 seed. It has lingered, causing his mouth to become droopy and his eyes to become dry and blurry and requiring constant drops.

The situation is a nuisance, he said, but not a deterrent. This season has tested Embiid in many ways. He’s seen an NBA All-Star teammate disappear and a torn left meniscus two months removed from what had been an MVP-level campaign. The 76ers needed to maintain and win their season to reach the postseason. Their hopes and safe passage have always depended on Embiid.

They did that again on Thursday with a resounding Game 3 victory, as Embiid delivered his best playoff performance yet. Hampered by the still-awkward knee, and now hampered by this recent illness, he dropped 50 points on the Knicks in a 125-114 win that moved 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 during a 43-point third quarter as they erased a halftime deficit and took control of the game. When the 76ers’ season seemed to be faltering, just one loss away from a make-or-break series, Embiid stepped to the forefront once again.

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Of course he did that in his own way. He nearly lost control in the first quarter and was nearly ejected — which he probably should have been — when he followed up an offensive foul with a Flagrant 1 a few possessions later. While on the ground, Embiid pulled the center of opponent Mitchell Robinson, who jumped above him for a dunk. The play infuriated the Knicks; Donte DiVincenzo called it “gross.” But it served as a rebuke 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 made 48.4 percent of their 31 3s. Yet it was Embiid who wore them again.

He defeated Jalen Brunson, who finally broke out of his two-match 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 was tormenting the Knicks inside and out. Embiid hit five threes and committed seven shooting errors. The Knicks rolled out one after another in an attempt to stop him, but they couldn’t. Isaiah Hartenstein committed five fouls, Robinson played only twelve minutes due to an ankle injury that forced him to miss the second half and still had three fouls.

“I got lucky,” Embiid said. “I made a few recordings. But you have to keep taking them, push that. I have to keep trusting myself. Especially because the physical possibilities are somewhat limited.”

Embiid had been slowed earlier in the series by his left knee, which he re-aggravated in Game 1. He had missed 30 games with a torn left meniscus after surgery in February and re-injured it. However, he seemed to be sprightly again on Thursday. But the ongoing series of injuries and ailments has affected Embiid. He revealed his frustration as he explained his new bout of Bell’s palsy. It has sometimes forced him to wonder why he is such a magnet for bad luck.

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“I say it every day,” he said. “It’s unfortunate. Every year you start asking yourself questions like ‘Why?’ Every year. It’s very 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. I have to keep pushing, I have to keep fighting have to keep putting my body on the line.

He has done that repeatedly. At 6 feet tall and 280 pounds, he has caused pain and received treatment for it after a slew of 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 was afraid of getting hurt again. He injured his left knee after Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga fell on it in January. That image, Embiid said, flashed through his mind when he saw Robinson on top of him in the first quarter. It put Robinson in danger, although officials felt it was not worthy of a Flagrant 2.

“I kind of had flashbacks when he came up to it,” Embiid said, rationalizing himself. “It’s unfortunate. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. In those situations I have to protect myself because I’ve been in far too many situations where I’m on the receiving end of the bad end of it. It was unfortunate. But physical play .They want to bring their physicality. We can be physical too, and we are. It goes both ways. I just keep playing. I have to keep my wits about me I don’t get outside of myself. I just have to remain myself, aggressive and physical.”

It was almost the play that turned the game and the series upside down. Without him, the Sixers might have been sunk and still expected an early playoff exit. Instead, they get to play Game 4 Sunday with a chance to close out their series with the Knicks.

Embiid had predicted this late Monday night after a disastrous ending to Game 2. It was a prediction delivered with the kind of confidence that comes with an MVP award and a spot as one of the league’s best players. The Sixers, he said, should have been up 2-o in the series. The Sixers, he said, will win it anyway.

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

The 76ers followed suit. They benefited from a physical game that occasionally turned chippy, if not more so. After complaining to the officials in Game 2, they committed seven fewer fouls than the Knicks and made fourteen more free throws. The third-quarter surge provided a difference-maker and Philadelphia held off New York in the fourth.

Now it’s another series and the Sixers have regained their swagger. Embiid never lost his.

(Photo of Embiid: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

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