Early in the third quarter of Wednesday night’s Celtics-76ers game, Marcus Smart was hit with a soft whistle for contesting a pass to Joel Embiid near the top of the key, with the Celtics up 11. On the reset, perhaps out of annoyance over Smart raising a stink about the foul, or perhaps sensing that Smart was in a volatile state of mind, Embiid stuck out a pointy left elbow and leveled Smart on an off-ball screen. Smart is one of the most confrontational dudes in the NBA, and Embiid is one of the most antagonistic, and so escalation was inevitable. Here’s what happened:
It’s entirely possible that Embiid was baiting Smart with the elbow, and it’s hard to tell but it looks like Embiid might’ve said something to Smart while he was sprawled out on the floor following the screen. But the very best part of this is Smart looking not even the least bit concerned about huge-ass Embiid angrily rushing him as refs and various teammates scrambled to cut off his approach. This can be interpreted however you want—certainly I would crap out every one of my internal organs and die on the spot if Embiid came at me like that—but it’s worth remembering that NBA players are the best in the world at the whole “hold me back!” routine. Smart has been in enough of these to know that most of them end with the would-be brawlers being conveniently separated just in the nick of time. For the most part these kerfuffles are theater; even noted punch-thrower Serge Ibaka mostly never actually lands any.
Smart’s two-handed shove was assessed a Flagrant 2 penalty, which earns an automatic ejection. Embiid got nothing for the elbow, but was hit with a technical foul for the rush. To absolutely no one’s surprise, seconds later Embiid was shown cackling gleefully with two of Smart’s Celtics teammates, because he lives for the chance to fluster and demoralize and in all other ways unravel his opponents. The Sixers immediately went on a 25–13 run to take their first lead of the game. Sometimes a rude elbow is totally worth it.