NEW YORK -- Philadelphia 76ers star James Harden repeatedly said it was "unacceptable" that he was called for a flagrant foul 2 on Brooklyn Nets forward Royce O'Neale and ejected late in the third quarter of Philadelphia's 102-97 victory in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series Thursday night, one of several hotly contested moments involving the referees throughout the game.
"Unacceptable," Harden said in the locker room afterward. "Unacceptable flagrant 2. First time I've been ejected. I'm not labeled as a dirty player and I didn't hit him in a private area. Somebody is draped on you like that defensively, that's a natural basketball reaction. I didn't hit him hard enough for him to fall down like that. But for a flagrant 2, it's unacceptable. This is a playoff game. We've seen around the league, things are much worse than what that play was. Honestly, I didn't think it was a foul on me. But that's unacceptable. It can't happen."
Asked whether he received an explanation from the officials, Harden said he did not, and then went on to explain why he didn't believe it was even an offensive foul -- let alone one that rose to the level of a flagrant 2, and with it an ejection.
"I didn't think it was a foul on me," Harden said. "Somebody is draped on me, your natural reaction is to use your off arm to get him off a little bit, and that was it. There was no windup, elbow, I didn't hit him in the private area, none of that."
The officials, however, disagreed. Monty McCutchen, the NBA's senior vice president of referee development and training, said in an in-game interview on TNT that the officials determined it was "excessive and unnecessary" contact to the groin.
After the game, crew chief Tony Brothers reiterated that stance in a pool report.
"Based on the point of contact directly to the groin, it rose to the level of excessive and ejection," Brothers said.
Before his ejection, Harden was playing his best basketball of the series. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 29 minutes and was Philadelphia's most consistent offensive performer when he was on the court. In particular, Harden succeeded in his forays to the rim, going 5-for-8 on 2-point shots after going a combined 2-for-13 on those attempts during the first two games.
The decision on the Harden play was magnified by the ruling on a play involving the 76ers' other superstar, Joel Embiid, less than three minutes into the game. While Embiid was lying on the ground, Nets center Nic Claxton stepped over Embiid and stared him down.
Embiid responded by kicking up at Claxton's midsection, appearing to catch him on the back of the leg.
After a lengthy review, Embiid received a flagrant foul 1 and remained in the game, while Claxton was hit with a technical.
That technical would prove to be important later, as Claxton was ejected early in the fourth quarter after throwing down a dunk over Embiid and then staring him down again, causing Brothers to immediately give him a second technical and eject him.
"The contact was deemed unnecessary and based on the point of contact to the leg, it didn't rise to the level of excessive," Brothers said in describing why Embiid was given only a flagrant 1.
Nets coach Jacque Vaughn vehemently disagreed, twice saying Embiid intentionally kicked Claxton and that he had never seen a player stay in a game after such an incident.
"I don't think I've ever seen that in my career before," Vaughn said. "For a guy to intentionally kick someone in an area that none of us want to be kicked at or towards, for him to continue to play, I've never seen that before in a game and a guy continues to play. Intentional."
Embiid was asked several times to recount what happened during the incident with Claxton and repeatedly said he didn't remember.
However, asked whether he remembered what happened when Claxton was ejected, he said, "Yes," and then smiled.
"The whole game, you could see what they were doing," said Embiid, who finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in 38 minutes. "Just trying to get a rise out of me. I'm too valuable; especially after the first [play], I just understood I'm too valuable to get into this stuff.
"That's the second time [someone] hit me in the back [and] that's not reviewed. My back, my knee, hitting me every single time ... which is fine. It's working for them. But, you know, just got to keep going."
It was an eventful night for Embiid and not just because of the initial flagrant foul review.
He went to the locker room toward the end of the first quarter and remained there until shortly before he returned to the game early in the second quarter. Then, almost immediately upon checking into the game, he got tangled up with Nets forward Cameron Johnson under the basket and appeared to tweak his right ankle, which he then grabbed at for a couple of trips up and down the court.
Embiid remained in the game, however, and helped stake Philadelphia to an 11-point halftime lead.
Then, after Brooklyn went on a 16-5 run to begin the second half to tie the score at 63, Embiid had an awkward fall while trying to defend a Johnson drive and again limped back up the court. But, once again, he remained in the game.
He was wearing a large ice pack on his knee after the game but said he felt all right.
The issues between Embiid and Claxton go back to the regular season, when the two big men received technicals in Philadelphia's win over Brooklyn in what was Ben Simmons' only time playing in his former team's home arena.
"He said something he shouldn't have," Embiid said of Claxton after that game, when asked what resulted in the two of them exchanging words. "That's why when I walked up to his face, I told him to say it to my face again. That's why he looked away and he didn't say it again, because he knows why."
Then, after Philadelphia's Game 1 victory on Saturday, Vaughn asked during his postgame news conference for more calls against Embiid in Game 2.
"Hopefully they'll be calling traveling and defensive three seconds on the big fella next game," Vaughn said. "So, I look forward to that."
Embiid then responded to Vaughn after leading Philadelphia to another win in Game 2, referring to Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse and his similar requests for calls during last year's first-round playoff series between the 76ers and Raptors.
What was almost entirely lost amid the focus on the referees was that Philadelphia moved within one win of a sweep of the Nets thanks to 10 straight points from Tyrese Maxey in the closing three minutes, followed by an emphatic Embiid block on a Spencer Dinwiddie drive that could have tied the game in the final seconds.
"I didn't think any of us played well tonight," 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. "I think we won the game. That's why it's 'we.'
"That's what I told them after the game. If that wasn't a team win, there's no such thing."