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

PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid walked off the podium and into the array of hallways of the Wells Fargo Center late Thursday evening wearing dark black sunglasses across his face. He had worn them for most of the night after the Philadelphia 76ers preserved their season with a grueling Game 3 win over the New York Knicks; in the locker room as he iced his leg and in a news conference in front of reporters and cameras.

Over the last week-and-a-half, Embiid has had Bell’s palsy, which has weakened the muscles on the left side of his face. It began with heavy migraines last week, just a day or so before the 76ers beat the Miami Heat in a Play-In Tournament game to notch the No. 7 seed. It has lingered, leaving his mouth drooped, and his eye dry, blurry and in constant need of drops.

The condition has been a nuisance, he said, but not a deterrent. This season has tested Embiid in many ways. He has seen an NBA All-Star teammate demand out, and a torn left meniscus erase two months from what had been an MVP-level campaign. The 76ers have had to preserve their season and win just to get into the postseason. Their hopes, and their safe passage, have always depended on Embiid.

They did again Thursday in a resounding Game 3 win, when Embiid turned in his finest playoff performance yet. Hampered by the still balky knee, and now bothered by this recent illness, he dropped 50 points on the Knicks in a 125-114 win that pulled Philadelphia to 2-1 in their first-round series.

Embiid was dominant and efficient. He made 13 of 19 shots and took 21 free throws. He catalyzed the 76ers during a 43-point third quarter when they erased a halftime deficit and took control of the game. When the 76ers’ season seemed to teeter, just one loss away from an-all-but-over series, Embiid stepped to the forefront one more time.

He did it, of course, in his own way. He nearly lost control in the first quarter and was almost ejected — arguably should have been — when he followed up an offensive foul with a Flagrant 1 a few possessions later. As he lay on the ground, Embiid pulled down opposing center Mitchell Robinson, who was leaping above him for a dunk. The play incensed the Knicks; Donte DiVincenzo called it “dirty.” 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 drained 48.4 percent of their 31 3s. Yet, it was Embiid who carried them once again.

He outgunned Jalen Brunson, who finally broke out of his two-game slump. Brunson scored 39 points and dished out 13 assists after missing 39 of his first 55 shots this series and it still was not enough. Not when Embiid tormented the Knicks inside and out. Embiid hit five 3s and drew seven shooting fouls. The Knicks rolled out one big after another trying to stop him but couldn’t. Isaiah Hartenstein had five fouls, Robinson played just 12 minutes because of 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 shots. But gotta keep taking them, press on that. Gotta keep trusting myself. Especially because the physical abilities are somewhat limited.”

Embiid had been slowed earlier in the series by his left knee, which he reaggravated in Game 1. He had missed 30 games with a torn left meniscus after surgery in February, and hurt it once more. Thursday, however, he seemed to be spry again. But the constant run of injuries and afflictions has worn on Embiid. He revealed his frustration as he explained his new bout of Bell’s palsy. It has, at times, forced him to ask himself why he has been such a magnet for bad luck.

“I say it every day,” he said. “It is unfortunate. Every single year you start asking yourself questions like ‘Why?’ Every single year. It’s very annoying. Maybe it’s just meant to be. You gotta just take it as it is. The one thing I’m not going to do is give up. No matter what happens. Gotta keep pushing, gotta keep fighting, gotta keep putting my body on the line.”

He has done that repeatedly. At 7-feet, 280 pounds, he has inflicted pain and been treated for it after a slew of injuries. They have left an imprint on him.

Thursday, it nearly caused him to get tossed out of the game. Embiid grabbed Robinson, he said, because he was worried about getting hurt one more time. He had injured his left knee after Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga fell on it this January. That image, Embiid said, ran through his mind as he saw Robinson standing atop him in the first quarter. It put Robinson in danger, though officials deemed it was not worthy of a Flagrant 2.

“I kind of had some flashbacks when he came down to it,” Embiid said, rationalizing himself. “It’s unfortunate. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. In those situations, I gotta protect myself because I’ve been in way too many situations where I’m the recipient of the bad end of it. It was unfortunate. But physical game. They want to bring their physicality. We can be physical, too, and we are. It goes both ways. I get bumped all over the place and I just keep playing. I can take it. I gotta keep my mind and make sure that I don’t get outside myself. I just gotta keep being myself, aggressive and physical.”

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