MIAMI — As soon as it was announced that Joel Embiid would play in Game 3 the night centered on the 76ers big man, and his mask.
What would the mask look like? How would Embiid fare on the court with his new protective gear? Would the mask hold up under the physical nature of the game?
Sixers coach Brett Brown said that the aesthetics of the mask would be a surprise when he was asked in his pregame media availability. In Embiid's early warm-up time on the court, roughly an hour before tip-off, he elected to keep the mask off, holding everyone in suspense. But the answers eventually came.
It was a dark-tinted mask with a clear protective goggle-like lens attachment. Embiid did just fine, finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three blocked shots, and one steal. And, he went through three masks iterations in the course of his 30 minutes, 21 seconds on the floor.
At the 7-minute, 56-second mark in the second quarter of the Sixers 128-108 win, while Embiid was battling against Kelly Olynyk, the goggle portion, which attaches on the inside of the mask fell out. Seconds later Justise Winslow stepped on the lens, then picked it up and appeared to try to break it.
"You could see the energy in the game, I think Justise came over and tried to crush one of the masks, fortunately we had a mask in the bullpen," Brown said with a smile adding that he thinks Winslow's actions showed an aggressive playoff mentality.
Winslow didn't confirm or deny that he intentionally stepped on the goggles.
"We were smack talking, trash talking, but no love lost," he said of Embiid.
No love lost is right. When Embiid addressed the situation he had a message for Winslow and the Miami Heat.
"Justise stepped on it and tried to break it with his hands," Embiid said. "Little do they know that I have about 50 of them so it's going to take much more than that to get me out of this series. I'm going to be a nightmare for them."
The second mask fumble came with 8:27 left in the third quarter when Embiid was fouled on his way to the basket by Hassan Whiteside. As the foul was happening, Whiteside's arm went across Embiid's face, pulling the mask down, blocking his view. After Embiid hit the deck he threw the mask to the floor in frustration. The lens once again popped out.
"I can only imagine the restriction he probably felt wearing the mask and plus the lens," Brown said after the game.
He had been practicing and warming up in recent weeks with a semi-transparent, black-tinted mask. There was speculation whether or not he would play in a darker mask because in the past, players who have worn black masks have been asked by the NBA to switch to a clear mask, even though the NBA's official rule book do not say anything about the color of protective guards.
The NBA rule reads as follows:
"The officials shall not permit any player to wear equipment which, in their judgment, is dangerous to other players. Any equipment which is of hard substance (casts, splints, guards and braces) must be padded or foam covered and have no exposed sharp or cutting edge. All the face masks and eye or nose protectors must be approved by NBA Basketball Operations and conform to the contour of the face and have no sharp or protruding edges."
The most recent black-mask situation in the NBA came in 2014 when LeBron James, with the Miami Heat, wore a black mask to protect a broken nose. He wore the mask for just one game before commissioner Adam Silver requested he change to a clear mask.
Kobe Bryant and Kyrie Irving are two players who have also worn a black mask in recent years, both only wearing them in one game before switching to a clear version.
Before the game Brown said there needed to be league approval of the mask before Embiid played, so it looks like he will be continuing on with the dark color.
Embiid said that dealing with the mask is "annoying" and gets foggy, but dealing with it is what is required of him, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to play. He added that he thinks he will have to wear the mask for roughly eight weeks, which is the expected full healing time following his March 31 surgery.
That means if the Sixers, now with a 2-1 series lead over the Heat, continue to win we will be seeing a lot of Embiid and a lot of his mask. Who knows, we may even get to see all 50 of them at this rate.