Getty Images

Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid injury changes playoff vibe in Eastern Conference

5 Comments

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.

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.

Ben Simmons earns triple-double, Sixers own fourth to win Game 4 vs. Heat, take 3-1 lead

Associated Press
2 Comments

Joel Embiid’s biggest battle in Game 4 was with his mask — he hates that thing. A couple of times Saturday he tried to sneak into the game with it off, only to force Brett Brown to be the parent and threaten to bench him if he didn’t put it on immediately (winning Game 4 is not worth risking permanent eye/vision damage). Embiid was also battling his offensive game at times, still looking a little rusty.

More importantly, Embiid was also battling the Heat in the paint — when he was in the game Miami struggled to get good looks inside, allowing Sixers defenders to more aggressively challenge shooters on the wings.

That — and Ben Simmons’ triple-double — sparked a comeback from 12 late in the third as the Sixers held on to take Game 4 106-102, and that gives Philly a commanding 3-1 series lead heading back to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 5.

Simmons is the first rookie since Magic Johnson in 1980 to post a triple-double in the playoffs, with 17 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.

This was the nail in the coffin of the Heat’s season — if the Sixers turn the ball over 26 times, shoot 7-of-31 from three and still win on the road, the Heat are overmatched.

For much of the game, Miami did not look overmatched in the least and this looked like a game they could win.

Miami brought the defense in this game, and they did it by getting physical and using their length to force turnovers — through three quarters the Sixers had turned the ball over on 28.2 percent of their possessions, more than one in four trips down the court. Miami also did a better job contesting threes in this game, and the Sixers struggled from there all game (22.6 percent from deep).

The physicality led to a chippy game.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

A post shared by House of Highlights (@houseofhighlights) on

Miami led by a dozen late in the third, but Philadelphia closed the third on a run and carried over to the fourth, a 14-0 run that put the Heat in front as they found their defense. Ersan Ilyasova was key in that stretch with a driving and-one and the next time down the court a three, two plays that changed the momentum of the game.

All series long, the Sixers have been the better team down the stretch — which is unexpected for a young team taking on a more veteran squad. Now that we’re four games in, this is a thing.

In Game 4, the Sixers kept running “horns” sets and the Heat seemed to have no answers. Then late with the game on the line Miami had a couple of terrible defensive breakdowns, one allowing Simmons a clear path to the basket without help rotations that led to a dunk, and the other was Hassan Whiteside not going out to challenge J.J. Redick in the corner and letting him have a clean look (Redick’s foot was on the line so the expected three was a two, but still).

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid owned the paint on defense. When he sat for a little fourth quarter rest, Brett Brown went to the “Ben Simmons and shooters” lineup that was so effective through the final eight games of the season for them when Embiid was out, and that worked. The Sixers kept executing and getting the shots they wanted, the Heat kept hoping Dwyane Wade would bail them out again. He couldn’t, despite a strong 25 point game. Miami also shot itself in the foot going 13-of-25 from the free throw line for the game.

Redick had 24 for the Sixers, while Embiid had 14 points and 12 rebounds. Goran Dragic had 20 points for Miami, and James Johnson added 15.

Tempers flare in chippy Game 4 between Heat, Sixers

Associated Press
8 Comments

Miami is a physical defensive team, and in Game 4 at home Saturday they cranked that up. The Heat also are a handsy team they clutch, grab, hold, and get away with what they can (that isn’t new to this playoff series).

The Sixers are getting weary of it, and in a game with plenty of double technicals thanks to the referees trying to keep control. The game bubbled over a little midway through the second quarter when Robert Covington made sure Goran Dragic didn’t get off a shot after a foul.

These two teams don’t like each other. 😅

A post shared by House of Highlights (@houseofhighlights) on

Ben Simmons also leaned into Wade on a screen and pancaked him. But drew a foul.

😅

A post shared by House of Highlights (@houseofhighlights) on

Miami had the lead after three, but the Sixers have owned the games late this series. It’s going to go down to the wire.

Advantage Utah? Jazz’s Derrick Favors “100 percent” back

Associated Press
1 Comment

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — When Derrick Favors can find ways to impose his will, good things happen for the Utah Jazz.

Favors has been quietly, albeit effectively, getting it done against the Oklahoma City Thunder, playing in the shadows of Utah rookie of the year candidate Donovan Mitchell and Jazz center Rudy Gobert.

But a healthy Favors is making an impact.

The Jazz have returned to Utah with the series tied 1-1, thanks in no small part to Favors. He tallied career playoff highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds in Utah’s 102-95 road win on Wednesday.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder will start Favors at power forward alongside Gobert beginning with Game 3 on Saturday. But he will also utilize him as a backup center to spell Gobert. Favors has done his part to make playing alongside Gobert work by extending his shooting range to improve offensive spacing. He has also made himself an effective roller.

“He’s always been a good pick-and-roll player, regardless of `position,”‘ Snyder said. “We’ve never really thought of him as one position or the other. We’ve thought of him as a basketball player and tried to have him understand his strengths and then play to his strengths.”

Indeed. In the first two playoff games against the Thunder, Favors is averaging 13.5 points on 52 percent shooting and 10.5 rebounds.

It is exactly the type of impact Favors envisioned making when fighting to reclaim his body from knee and back injuries that afflicted him for the better part of two seasons.

“I’m back to being 100 percent,” Favors said. “Back healthy. Back moving the way I know I can move and playing the way I know I can play. It’s a big advantage for us.”

There’s no question having Favors at full strength has improved Utah’s ability to counter a Thunder team featuring the potent trio of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The veteran forward/center offers versatility on both ends of the court honed through playing multiple positions as circumstances dictate.

Crashing the boards definitely tops the list when checking off Favors’ strengths. He ranks second on the Jazz roster in rebounding behind Gobert with 7.2 rebounds per game.

When Favors is active on the glass, it can change the direction of a game for Utah. In Game 2 against Oklahoma City, he grabbed eight offensive rebounds through the first 2 1/2 quarters. By contrast, the Thunder totaled six offensive boards as a team in the same stretch.

“His length and his strength allow him to get his hands on balls,” Snyder said. “He’s got such good hands that even when he keeps the ball alive, usually something good happens.”

Favors’ willingness to go full throttle around the basket has turned him into a reliable complimentary player on offense. He rolls to the basket with consistency and, more often than not, it pays off for him.

It has turned Favors into a legitimate offensive presence again. He averaged 9.5 points on 48.7 percent shooting while limited to 50 games a year ago. This season, Favors is scoring 12.3 points per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the floor.

“Other teams and other opponents, they look and see I’m 6-foot-10 and think I’m a 5 man or whatever, so they try to take advantage of it,” Favors said. “It just feels good to be able to go out there and move the way that I know that I can move and be able to play the way I know that I can play and teams can’t take advantage of it.”

Favors is focused on staying aggressive as the series with the Thunder shifts to Utah. He is having fun playing basketball again and wants to make sure Oklahoma City continues to feel his presence on both ends of the court.

His teammates certainly do and they understand what a difference it can potentially make as the Jazz battle to keep going in the postseason.

“He’s been like that all year,” Mitchell said, “but he’s definitely turned it up with what he can do.”