NEW YORK • Joel Embiid was back on the court for the Philadelphia 76ers for Game 4 against the Brooklyn 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 involved the centre - he was the difference-maker.
The Sixers' 112-108 National Basketball Association play-off first-round win on Saturday put the Nets on the brink of elimination (they trail 3-1) as the series moves back to Philadelphia tomorrow for what could be a decisive Game 5.
There may not be enough time for either team to cool off in what has become one of the most fiery series in the post-season.
In Game 2, Embiid was called for a flagrant foul after he elbowed Jarrett Allen, the Nets' flyweight centre, in the face, sending him to the floor. The Nets were further incensed when Embiid laughed as he apologised in his news conference.
On Saturday, with tempers already boiling, Embiid smacked Allen under the basket, sending him flying. Jared Dudley, the Nets forward who has been trading barbs with Philadelphia's Ben Simmons, angrily 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," he said.
"I have to be the mature one. I stayed cool and didn't react. I thought my team needed me more than the Nets needed Jared Dudley, so I had to remain cool."
In a statement to 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 was allowed to remain in the game because he was "acting as a peacemaker and did not escalate the situation".
The Sixers, especially Embiid and Simmons, appeared energised by the drama of it all.
Although the Nets held on to 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, seven assists, six 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 Centre with a win. But, in the closing moments, Embiid was once again a factor when he passed the ball to Mike Scott for the go-ahead three-pointer with 18 seconds left.
"It was really important because we wanted to get this one and go home and try to finish it off," Embiid added.
In Utah, James Harden had 22 points and 10 assists to rally the Houston Rockets to a 104-101 win over the Jazz for a 3-0 series lead.
The guard, however, went 0-of-14 from the field through the first three quarters.
In San Antonio, Nikola Jokic racked up 29 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and added eight assists as Denver Nuggets rolled over the Spurs 117-103 in Game 4 to even the series at two games apiece.
In Detroit, Khris Middleton recorded 20 points and nine rebounds to help Milwaukee beat the Pistons 119-103 to take a 3-0 lead.
NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS