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76ers’ Joel Embiid says he doesn’t mind being villain at Madison Square Garden: ‘I just love New York’

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Joel Embiid has played three playoff games at Madison Square Garden, and after a stunning come-from-behind Game 5 victory by the 76ers, he’s hoping there will eventually be a fourth. If there is, Embiid can expect to face an increasingly hostile crowd. Between several borderline dirty fouls and a monster 50-point Game 3 performance, Embiid has become public enemy No. 1 in New York City. Knicks fans both in and out of Madison Square Garden have been heard chanting “f— Embiid,” and many of them are adamant that he should have been ejected from Game 3 for a flagrant foul on Mitchell Robinson.

But Embiid is taking the negativity in stride. After Philadelphia’s Game 5 victory, he even seemed to relish it. “It’s not hostile. I love New York. New York is my favorite city in the world,” Embiid said. “I have a place here for the past five years. I just love New York. If I’ve got to be the punching bag and you hear a lot of ‘F Embiid,’ that’s ok. I love it.”

New York manages to find a villain in just about every playoff series the Knicks participate in. Trae Young occupied that role famously in 2021. Historically speaking, New York villains represent a pretty historic group of basketball figures. Michael Jordan, Pat Riley and Reggie Miller have all been loathed by the Madison Square Garden crowd. It comes with the territory of facing the Knicks in a series.

There’s a shred of irony here given the long-simmering rumors about Embiid as a possible trade target for the Knicks. Though he is under contract in Philadelphia for at least two more seasons, he mentioned last offseason that his goal is to win a championship “whether that’s in Philly or anywhere else.” 

His former agent, Leon Rose, now runs the Knicks, and while the 76ers are primed for a strong offseason, there is always fear that a superstar that has experienced limited playoff success will start to wonder about new homes. There will naturally be a bit of wondering about whether or not Embiid is playing a bit of preemptive politics here.

Of course, even if he is, it doesn’t have to mean much. LeBron James famously called New York his favorite city in the world too just ahead of his 2010 free agency. He still hasn’t played for the Knicks. No matter what the future holds for Embiid, his present is very much tied to the Knicks. On Thursday, his 76ers will attempt to even this series at three games apiece in Philadelphia. Should he succeed, they will return to Madison Square Garden for Game 7. There is nothing Embiid could say between now and then that would lift the villain label off of him. He’s at peace with that if it means surviving this series and advancing in the postseason.

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