Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid was back on the court for Game 4 against the Nets after missing a game with knee tendinitis, bulldozing bodies as if they were bowling pins. And in a game that had its fair share of flying bodies — including a third-quarter brawl that, yes, involved Embiid — he was the difference maker. The Sixers’ 112-108 win on Saturday puts the Nets on the brink of elimination as the series shifts back to Philadelphia for what could be a decisive Game 5.
The three days until then may not be enough time for either team to cool off in what has become one of the most fiery series of the first round of the N.B.A. postseason.
In Game 2, Embiid was called for a flagrant 1 foul after he elbowed Jarrett Allen, the Nets’ flyweight center, in the face, sending him to the floor. The Nets were further incensed when Embiid laughed as he apologized in his news conference. The next day, Embiid admitted that he thought that he should have been ejected.
On Saturday, with tempers already boiling, Embiid, reprised the role of Broad Street bully and smacked the 6-foot-11 Allen under the basket, sending him flying. Jared Dudley, the Nets forward who has been trading barbs with Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, angrily confronted and bumped Embiid. Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler shoved Dudley from behind and Dudley, with Simmons and one of the referees, tumbled into the front row. Dudley and Butler were ejected, and Embiid was called for a flagrant foul.
After the game, Embiid said it was his job to be physical. He also said he did not think he fouled Allen on the play that led to the shoving match.
“It’s a mind game; they want me to retaliate,” Embiid said. “I have to be the mature one. I stayed cool and didn’t react. I thought my team needed me more than they needed Jared Dudley, so I had to remain cool.”
He also thanked Butler for being his bodyguard.
“The fact that he had my back, I’m going to pay that fine,” Embiid said.
As for Dudley having Allen’s back, Nets guard D’Angelo Russell said, “I thought that was necessary.”
The cost was a second half without Dudley, who had scored 8 points in 20 minutes, and Butler, who had 11 points in 24 minutes.
The Sixers, especially Embiid and Simmons, appeared energized by the drama of it all. Though the Nets held onto a slim lead for much of the second half, Philadelphia kept pushing before pulling ahead down the stretch and securing the win.
In describing Embiid’s impact on the game, Sixers Coach Brett Brown grabbed the stat sheet.
“Just look at the magnitude of what the numbers say, the influence that the numbers say that he must have had on the game,” Brown said. “To have 31 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 blocked shots and you win, well it’s hard to sort of say it any better than that. He was dominant.”
The Nets certainly had their chance to change the momentum of the series and leave Barclays Center with a win heading into Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia. With less than five minutes remaining and the Nets leading by 7, they fumbled their opportunity in the closing moments. And once again, Embiid was a factor when he passed the ball to Mike Scott for the go-ahead 3-pointer with 18 seconds left.
On the Nets’ ensuing possession, Allen turned the ball over after three Sixers surrounded him, and Tobias Harris closed out the scoring with two free throws. Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson said afterward that Allen was wrapped up by Harris as he tried to turn to the basket.
It was a frustrating end to a tension-filled night.
“It was really important because we wanted to get this one and go home and try to finish it off,” Embiid said. He added: “It feels great to be up, 3-1. We definitely don’t want to be in a situation like the Warriors,” referring to the 2016 N.B.A. finals, when Golden State lost the series to the Cleveland Cavaliers after being up, three games to one.
At that, Butler left the podium. He said he joined the postgame news conference to save Embiid from himself, so he “don’t do something stupid.”
Butler left the room with a laugh. Embiid continued, “I’m just kidding, but we want to be able to close it out, so that was a big win.”