Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Joel Embiid injury changes playoff vibe in Eastern Conference. Wednesday morning, you could chart a very plausible path for the Sixers to reach the Conference Finals (they climb the half game past the Cavaliers for the three seed, beat the six seed in the first round, then face the banged-up Celtics or whoever beat them in the first round, and then it’s the conference finals).
Forty-eight hours later, the Sixers season has been tossed upside down.
Joel Embiid has a fractured orbital bone (the eye socket) that requires surgery to repair, and he has a concussion. He’s out for 2-4 weeks. That means the rest of the regular season and likely at least the start of the playoffs, maybe the entire first round.
Embiid is handling this in the most Embiid way possible.
What does that mean on the court? The Sixers are in trouble. When Embiid has been out of the game this season (either missing the game or just on the bench), the Sixers are 15.2 points per 100 possessions worse. Embiid’s presence impacts both sides of the ball — when he’s out the defense gets six points per 100 possessions worse, while the offense is 9.6 per 100 worse. Or, look at it this way: the Sixers outscore opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions with Embiid but when he sits the Sixers get outscored by 3.6 per 100. With Embiid on the court the Sixers look elite, without him they look like a team that misses the playoffs entirely. He makes that big a difference. If Wednesday is any indication, look for some combination of Amir Johnson, Richaun Holmes, and Dario Saric to play the five.
How hard will Philly push to get him back? Yes, their playoff seeding and how long they last in the postseason largely hinge on Embiid playing, but for a young team with long-term aspirations this playoff run is not the goal. It’s not worth long-term risk to try to win a playoff series this season. The vision has to be bigger than that, both for Embiid and the franchise.
So where do the Sixers land now?
Philly is currently the four seed in the East, percentage points ahead of the Pacers for the five slot, with both of them just half a game back of the three-seed Cavaliers. Indiana has a brutal schedule the rest of the way, the Sixers have the softest remaining schedule in the league (just two of their eight remaining games are against playoff teams), but the Pacers could well still pass them for the four seed. Catching the Cavaliers is almost out of the question now, and with a little gap back to the Wizards at six, the Sixers likely finish with the four or five seed and take on the Pacers in the first round. With Embiid Philadelphia is the favorite in that series, without him… not so much.
2) Kevin Durant ejected again, Golden State loses again, and with that the Rockets lock up the No. 1 seed. After missing six games with cracked ribs, Kevin Durant returned to the Warriors lineup Thursday night against the Bucks and with that (and the return of Draymond Green) the Warriors were supposed to get back to normal.
They did — the new normal where Durant gets ejected. That’s the fifth time this season. Just before the half Durant drove the lane and thought Giannis Antetokounmpo came over the top and fouled him, but there was no call. Durant got up, ignored the play that was going on, walked straight over to referee Tre Maddox and dropped a series of F-bombs on him (you can hear it in the broadcast), and that got KD tossed.
First, Durant earned the ejection. Players complain that officials have a quick trigger, but Durant showed Maddox zero respect and got in his face yelling obscenities — what did KD think was going to happen? Players are frustrated with officials this season, they want the ability to vent a little on calls and have a conversation about how things are officiated, and that’s completely fair — but it has to be done with respect. On both sides. If you ignore the play and go up to a referee dropping F-bombs you’re going to get run. That’s on Durant, not Maddox.
Without Durant, there was no second-half comeback for Golden State, and the Bucks picked up a much-needed win for them as they fight for seeding with Miami at the bottom of the East (the seven seed and Boston in the first round, minus Kyrie Irving and all the other Celtics’ injuries, is a coveted spot). Antetokounmpo had 32 points to lead Milwaukee.
That’s three-straight losses for Golden State, which is enough to give Houston the No. 1 seed officially. The Warriors are locked into the No. 2 slot. Expect both teams to rest their stars a lot the last couple weeks of the season.
3) Spurs knock off Thunder with equal parts defense, LaMarcus Aldridge, move into four seed. On paper, the Thunder look like they should be a serious threat in the Western Conference playoffs, a team that can put a real scare into even a healthy Golden State or Houston team. But then you watch them play and they are something less than that.
San Antonio used the same formula it has used all season — great defense and enough LaMarcus Aldridge to get the job done — to beat Oklahoma City 103-99. OKC was all Westbrook down the stretch but this was not his night — 2-of-8 shooting in the fourth with a couple air-balled threes and a couple of turnovers. While the Thunder clamped down on Aldridge in the second half (just four of his 25 points came after the half), it opened up things for other players who stepped in with buckets.
San Antonio and Oklahoma City are tied for the four/five seeds in the West with both at 44-32, however, the Spurs have the tiebreaker right now (the teams are 2-2 head-to-head this season, so it goes to conference record and the Spurs currently have a one-game lead).
I want to believe in Westbrook, Paul George, and the Thunder, but I watch their bench get torched in this game and I wonder (bench play matters less in the postseason but it still matters some). I watch teams target Carmelo Anthony on defense, something that will only get worse in the playoffs, and I see vulnerabilities. The Thunder can get out of the first round, but it will not be easy, not in this deep West. And beyond that, it’s just hard to envision after watching a game like this.