NEW YORK — Madison Square Garden was quiet for most of Wednesday night, and understandably so. The Knicks had lost their previous 17 games, and there wasn’t much to suggest that they would avert an 18th consecutive loss, to the 76ers. Sure, in the first half, Kevin Knox had cut through the lane and hammered down a violent dunk over Ben Simmons, but that flash of noise had faded by the final three minutes of the third quarter, as the Sixers built and retained a double-digit lead.
Then, with little more than two minutes remaining in the quarter, with the Sixers ahead by 15 points, JJ Redick threw a pass to Joel Embiid that zipped through Embiid’s hands. The ball bounced toward the sideline and the scorer’s table.
Embiid took four steps as he chased the ball, planted his left foot, and flipped the ball over his head with his right hand as he launched himself into the crowd, over actress Regina King. He landed on Dave Fried, the longtime statistician for Mike Breen, the Knicks’ play-by-play voice on the MSG Network, and Fried seemed to disappear, as if he were a soda can that Embiid had crushed into a little silver disk.
“He hit the bun on her head,” Breen said. “Our stat guy just got destroyed.”
Embiid, fortunately for him and the Sixers, did not. He clambered out of the stack of bodies, made sure that Fried and King had survived, and returned to the game — without a limp, but with what seemed the faintest of smiles of his face.
No one would dispute that Embiid regards himself as something of a showman, that he has an impish streak — on social media, while answering questions during a media scrum, even during a game — that creates the impression that he courts attention for attention’s sake.
After the Sixers’ loss Tuesday night to the Celtics, for instance, he pushed himself away from the table at the end of his news conference, then leaned back toward the microphone and said, “These referees [expletive stink].” He followed that provocation, which earned him a $25,000 fine from the NBA, with another after the Sixers’ 126-111 victory here when someone asked him about the fine: “I did get fouled, and everybody knew that. It was against Boston again, which I [expletive] hate … I’m sorry, which I hate.”
But those childish word choices were minor infractions, especially when compared to the consequences that could have resulted from a flying leap, into a treacherous area, that he never needed to take.
“I don’t enjoy doing that,” Embiid said. “I did that a lot my rookie season, and I know the fans used to freak out about it. I play hard every night. I don’t think anybody’s not going to say that. Every time I get on the floor, I give my all. I do play hard. In situations like that, I felt like I had to save the ball. I’m going to do that a hundred percent of the time. But I guess it’s a different setting, regular-season game instead of the playoffs.”
There was nothing for Embiid or anyone else to guess about. This was not a Game 6 against the Celtics or Raptors. This was not a sequence of lasting significance for the Sixers. This was Embiid jumping into the stands in the last game before the All-Star break, with the Sixers up 15 against a team that had lost 17 in a row.
These were circumstances that demanded a player, particularly a superstar of Embiid’s importance and intelligence, exhibit a sense of and appreciation for situational basketball, an ability to take the measure of a moment and act or react accordingly.
The Sixers depend too much on Embiid, and he has too long and diverse an injury history, for him to be taking such chances, and even his head coach, as he watched all 7 feet and 250 pounds of Embiid sail through the air and crumple to the floor, couldn’t deny the terror that crossed his mind.
“Just like what I’m sure our owners were thinking and what our fans back home in Philadelphia were thinking,” Brett Brown said. “You respect his aggression. You respect his passion. But you don’t want that. I say that out of love and care. It came after a turnover, and he’s jumping into the stands. It’s just something you hope to avoid.”
Joel Embiid didn’t avoid it. He embraced it, and he succeeded in waking up, for a while, an uninterested crowd inside The World’s Most Famous Half-Empty Arena.
Yet for all the plaudits he might get for playing into the image that Philadelphia sports fans prize most — the pro athlete who’ll do anything at any time to win — the most substantial praise he received was not for his journey into those courtside seats but for his disposition once he arrived.
“He was so nice,” Breen said. “Dave was shaken up initially, but then, when he realized he was now famous, he quickly got over his injuries. But Joel was so nice about making sure he was OK. He went out of his way, which was so kind of him. Some guys just jump up and run away.”