Simmering bad blood between the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets boiled over Saturday, when a Joel Embiid hard foul triggered a scuffle that carried into courtside seats and led to multiple ejections.
With a little under eight minutes remaining in the third quarter of Philadelphia’s 112-108 win in Game 4, Embiid tried to block a driving layup attempt by Nets center Jarrett Allen. Although Philadelphia’s all-star big man made a play on the ball, the force of his contact sent Allen to the court. The foul had a backstory, with Embiid having been assessed a flagrant foul for elbowing Allen in the head during Game 2.
Jared Dudley, Brooklyn’s veteran forward and chief antagonist, quickly rushed to Allen’s defense by bumping Embiid to express his displeasure. The dominoes kept falling from there, with Sixers forward Jimmy Butler racing in to shove Dudley away from Embiid and Nets guard D’Angelo Russell bumping the shoving match — which also included Ben Simmons — into the stands.
Following a lengthy video review, the officials deemed Embiid guilty of a flagrant foul 1, which applies to contact that is deemed unnecessary but not excessive. He was allowed to remain in the game. Dudley and Butler, meanwhile, were immediately ejected. Russell escaped punishment.
“He’s a nobody,” Embiid said of Dudley in a postgame interview on TNT. “When opponents try to do stuff like that, that’s just to get us out of the game. I’m too valuable for my team. That’s why they react. I did not do anything. I didn’t think that was a flagrant foul because I played the ball too. In that situation, I’ve got to stay composed, be mature and let it go. My teammates need me more than [the Nets] need him.”
In a statement to pool reporters, referee Ed Malloy said Embiid was assessed the flagrant foul due to his “wind up with unnecessary contact,” Dudley and Butler were ejected “for their roles as escalators,” and Simmons and Russell were allowed to remain in the game because they were “acting as peacemakers and did not escalate the situation.”
When asked about his ejection, Butler expressed no regrets for coming to Embiid’s defense.
“I don’t think you should run up on anybody like that,” he said.
Russell, similarly, stood up for his Nets teammates.
“We’ve seen hard fouls go against Jarrett Allen the last few games," he said. "This happened to be from the same player. For Jared Dudley to step up and react like that, I thought it was necessary. We’re getting the bottom end of that. For one of our players to be on the ground after every hard play like that, that’s not what it’s going to be. We’re going to handle it in our own ways.”
Embiid, who bounced back from knee tendinitis that forced him to sit out Game 3, finished with a game-high 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and six blocks and was in a jovial mood afterward. He told reporters he got “all ball” on the foul and was not intending to hurt Allen. After establishing a commanding series lead, the Sixers’ star could exhale and unleash a wisecrack at the Golden State Warriors’ expense.
“It feels great to be up 3-1," Embiid said. “We definitely don’t want to be in the situation like the Warriors [three] years ago.”
When that reference to Golden State’s collapse in the 2016 NBA Finals prompted Butler to immediately leave, Embiid cracked up and added: "I was kidding, man.”
The light exchange was a nice respite within an intense series. The Sixers were booed off their home court following a Game 1 loss and then responded with emphatic victories in Games 2 and 3. After his flagrant elbow to Allen, Embiid attempted to apologize, but both he and Simmons started to laugh during their postgame media session.
“I’m not usually humble, that’s why [Simmons is] laughing,” Embiid said.
That flippant tone and behavior irked multiple Nets players, and Dudley further fueled the animosity between the two teams by referring to Simmons as an “average” player in the half court. Simmons brushed off Dudley with a simple “come on,” but the two players proceeded to exchange taunts during Games 3 and 4.
In the wake of Saturday’s ejections, Philadelphia mounted a comeback that led to a riveting endgame. Sixers forward Mike Scott, on the court in place of Butler, buried a go-ahead three-pointer from the left corner with 18.6 seconds left to seal the victory.
Simmons added 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for Philadelphia, while Butler tallied 11 points, four rebounds and four assists before his early exit.
Caris LeVert led the Nets with 25 points, and Allen and Russell each had 21.