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Three things we learned on Wednesday: Knicks, Sixers seem headed in opposite directions

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Here’s what you missed around the NBA while trying to put out the fire your pet tortoise caused

1) The Sixers have won 3-of-4 and look confident; The Knicks on the other hand… 
It’s amazing how one shot, one comeback can change perceptions, alter the feelings around an entire franchise. Or in this case, two franchises.

The shot was Philadelphia’s T.J. McConnell’s game winner Wednesday night to beat the Knicks. Of course, it was preceded by the Knicks blowing a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Joel Embiid banking in a three-pointer, then Kristaps Porzingis — New York’s best player — air balling a wide-open corner three to give the Sixers a chance. Credit due to Sixers coach Brett Brown here — most coaches would have called a timeout on this final play and tried to assert some control by setting up a play, but a defense scrambling in chaos is the best time to score and Brown kept his hands in his pockets and trusted his team. It worked.

The Knicks are a mess. Derrick Rose was back from going AWOL and had an efficient 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting — he was still -21 for the game (that stat can be misleading, but here it speaks to problems on the defensive end). The Knicks have lost 9-of-10, have fallen out of the playoffs, and are five games below .500 with their next five games being against teams in the playoff chase — the Bulls, Raptors, Hawks, Celtics, and Wizards. New York needs wins in there or it’s going to get ugly. And when it gets ugly James Dolan tends to step in. There’s some old-school Chicken Little “the sky is falling” going on amongst Knicks fans right now, and it’s hard to blame them. What exactly is the reason for hope right now?

The Sixers, on the other hand, have won 3-of-4 and there is a growing confidence about them. Having Joel Embiid does that. If a franchise is going to tank like nobody has ever tanked before through the process and struggle for a few years, it needs to come out on the other end with a franchise cornerstone player or two. Embiid, after a long wait, seems to be that guy. Ben Simmons may be as well. Hopefully, we get to find out this season and see them together. There are a lot of questions about how all the pieces fit together in Philly, there are other draft picks and prospects yet to arrive, but this feels like a team that has turned the corner and is heading in the right direction. There is a reason for hope.

2) Russell Westbrook racks up 18th triple-double of season, Thunder win again. I’ve run out of ways to praise Russell Westbrook. Remember how last season we said it was crazy how many triple-doubles he was racking up? After Wednesday, he now has 18 this season — the same number he had all of last season. The Thunder have 42 games left. Westbrook had 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists on Wednesday, and more importantly the Thunder won again, this time against a Memphis team that has been playing well of late and brings with it one of the best defenses in the NBA. There just is no defense for Westbrook.

3) We’ve got upsets: Timberwolves end Rockets win streak at 9; Trail Blazers comfortably beat Cavaliers. There were a couple other games of note, from the “good teams can’t win every game” category. For one, Minnesota was playing good enough defense, getting 28 from Andrew Wiggins, 23 from Karl-Anthony Towns, and 20 off the bench from Shabazz Muhammad. Oh, and the Timberwolves were racking up highlights.

Portland looked like a playoff team — something that hasn’t happened consistently of late — playing its best game of the season and thrashing Cleveland 102-86. The Blazers dominated this game from the start and got 27 points and another strong game from C.J. McCollum, and when the Cavaliers worked to take the ball out of his hands, Allen Crabbe stepped up with some quality playmaking. Considering the travel problems both teams had just getting to snowy Portland for this game, the Cavs can write this one off and not think about it. The Blazers (who had a harder time getting back home for this game, they landed in Seattle and took a bus) get a quality win out of it.

Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, probable top-10 pick, declares for NBA draft

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Jonathan Isaac explored bursting through a loophole to declare for the 2016 NBA draft straight out of high school.

Instead, he went to Florida State. Now, he’ll enter the 2017 draft.

Isaac:

If he doesn’t hire an agent, Isaac can maintain college eligibility, but this message seems pretty final. Expect Isaac to remain in the draft, and expect him to go in the top 10.

What I like most about the 6-foot-11 forward: Despite being so lanky, he was an elite defensive rebounder. That shows an underlying technical proficiency and physicality that should serve him well.

And then there are the drool-inducing flashes – his ability to go up and get alley-oops above the rim and a sweet-looking jumper.

He’s still a work in progress, and he deferred a lot at Florida State. But he’s just 19, and he has the tools to do more. I’d love to get him on my team as he learns to assert himself.

Report: Clippers sort of resent Austin Rivers’ favored status

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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The Clippers faced a potential crisis this summer.

They had already agreed to re-sign Austin Rivers to a three-year contract worth more than $35 million, and Jamal Crawford was threatening to leave. Losing the then-36-year-old Crawford would’ve been costly, but it wouldn’t have been devastating. The bigger issue would have been the image: keeping the coach’s son over the reigning Sixth Man of the Year.

Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers calmed the brewing storm by giving Crawford a three-year, $42 million deal.

But apparently the underlying tension hasn’t completely dissipated.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

The in-house resentment toward Austin Rivers being favored as Doc’s son, according to team sources, still very much exists, but it isn’t out of control.

Know what the Clippers truly resent? Losing. They’ve gone 8-9 since the All-Star break, and they’re clearly feeling the slump.

That brings lingering issues, like Austin’s place on the team, to the surface.

And other Clippers are reasonable to show suspicion about the dynamic, a complication Doc should have considered when he traded for Austin.

Austin has explained his never-that-warm relationship with Doc, who was busy coaching while Austin was growing up. These two claim this is far more a coach-player than father-son relationship, and I believe they believe that. I also believe it’s mostly true, though their familial ties probably intrude more than they realize.

That said, Austin has worked himself into a legitimate backup guard after a horrendous start to his NBA career. It’s worth a reminder just how bad he was in New Orleans because that shows how even his modest role now is a sign of tremendous growth. Austin has improved his shot, and his 6-foot-4 frame is an asset in some defensive matchups (probably not as many as Doc believes, judging by Austin’s assignments).

Does Austin deserve 28 minutes per game? Probably not, though he also handles garbage-time minutes so older teammates don’t have to. Does Austin deserve his $11 million+ annual salary? Probably not, though the capped-out Clippers had no recourse beyond minimum contracts to replace him, so he had leverage (ditto Crawford). Does he deserve to so often speak for the team? Probably not, though bigger stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan might not mind the occasional break.

Austin’s biggest problem is that, despite his improvement, his gaffes are still so blatant. That makes it more difficult to take him seriously, even when the totality of evidence says we should.

And for all the examples of Doc’s Clippers favoring Doc’s son, Austin was still the player who got left in the game with a concussion. That’s just dangerous, not nepotism.

There isn’t out-of-control resentment for Austin, because there’s isn’t out-of-control favoritism for him.

But there is some favoritism, and the more the Clippers struggle, the more they’ll look for a place to point the finger and occasionally land on Austin.

Report: Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, determined to become NBA head coach, offered Florida women’s job

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is the NBA’s first female full-time coach.

She could also become the next Florida women’s basketball coach.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon is considering a lucrative offer to leave the NBA and become the University of Florida women’s basketball coach, league sources told The Vertical.

The financial offer would be a considerable raise, especially considering that she’s still a young, behind-the-bench assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff. Nevertheless, Hammon is grappling with the decision, because she has been determined to stay on course to become the NBA’s first female head coach, league sources said.

Hammon is blazing a trail in the NBA and might eventually become a head coach in the league. She has Gregg Popovich’s endorsement, praise from San Antonio players and success in limited opportunities.

But the path for a woman coach in men’s basketball is extremely narrow. It’s not fair, but Hammon faces hurdles others wouldn’t.

And the glass ceiling becomes exponentially thicker for a woman in women’s basketball who’s trying to jump to men’s basketball. Women’s college basketball is not a pipeline to the NBA, especially not for a woman. If Hammon goes to Florida, the paradigm changes. It would renew questions about her playing experience coming only in women’s basketball and her limited time with the Spurs.

Hammon wouldn’t be blackballed from the NBA, but she’d be setting up more obstacles for herself to clear to become a head coach in the league.

In one respect, I don’t envy her decision. However, she has positioned herself to choose between a promising path and an excellent job. Even if deciding is difficult, she’ll wind up in a good place.

Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

AP Photo/Gus Ruelas
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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.