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5 Up, 5 Down: Anthony Davis ain’t never shaving his unibrow

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5 Up, 5 Down is a biweekly column featuring the best and worst from the NBA.

Seeds 2-5 in the Eastern Conference are on a combined 24-game win streak. I don’t know what to do with that information, other than relay it to you here and pray that everyone gets healthy over the next few weeks so as to make our playoff experience that much better.

With that said, there have been a spate of injuries that are working against us. Joel Embiid‘s got a broken face, Kyrie Irving‘s knee is all boogered up, and the Washington Wizards can’t stop slightly turning ligaments in their legs the wrong direction.

Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. Unless you’re a Utah Jazz fan. Then you might be a bit mad about this next part. Ok, let’s do it.

5 Up

Ben Simmons is Rookie of the Year

I love Donovan Mitchell. The comparisons of him to a more muscular, powerful Damian Lillard ring true. His style is there. And the Utah Jazz, on paper, have no business being 7th in the Western Conference the season after losing their franchise cornerstone in Gordon Hayward. But Ben Simmons is just … ridiculous.

The Philadelphia 76ers keep winning games even with Joel Embiid out due to injury. On the road, without Embiid, the Sixers beat the Charlotte Hornets by 17 on Sunday. Simmons posted a line of 20-15-8 without breaking a sweat.

The numbers support this too, by the way. Simmons leads Mitchell in VORP, netRTG, assist percentage, rebounding … the list goes on. Simmons is above Mitchell in both true shooting and effective field goal percentage despite the Sixers rookie going 0-for-11 from 3-point range this year.

And yes, Simmons is a rookie. Sorry, Utah. Take it for what it’s worth. If I’m a Jazz fan, I might want to stay under the radar for a little while out West. It’ll make it that much sweeter in Year 3 and 4 when Mitchell is damn near unstoppable.

LeBron James keeps breaking records

Enough about his workout regimen, I just want to wind back the clock and sit in some pure, cumulative statistical records for a while. We like to live in the world of nostalgia where it seems impossible that someone will ever be better than Michael Jordan. The fact is, if the republic doesn’t crumble into the earth and the rising sea doesn’t wash away Madison Square Garden, there’s hundreds of years of the NBA left to watch. Someone, at some point, is going to be better than Mike.

Meanwhile, LeBron James is passing the guy along with a bunch of other NBA greats in the record books. Recently, LeBron passed MJ for the most consecutive games of double-digit scoring. LBJ broke Mike’s record for years passed between All-Star MVPs, points scored in NBA Finals history, and career playoff points.

This is an era that we’re going to be nostalgic for later. We need to consciously soak it in as much as we can while it’s here. Who knows what the conversation will be in 10-20 years time. Perhaps we’ll be arguing whether anybody in 2038 can pass LeBron James in NBA history? I bet we will.

The Sixers are winning without Joel Embiid

Look, Joel Embiid getting hit in the face by Markelle Fultz felt par for the course in an NBA season that started with Gordon Hayward’s ankle exploding. So many guys have been hit by the injury bug, and The Process feels tenuous even as Philadelphia has made it clear they’re a playoff team this season.

Heck, what felt like the obvious move here was that Philly’s season would sort of unravel, and we’d all bask in loving the sadness that comes with being a sports fan. But, alas, we must continue to watch Philadelphia win. Yes, the Sixers racked up their 10th-straight win on Sunday — their third since Embiid went out with a fractured orbital bone Wednesday vs. the New York Knicks.

I think I’ve gone LaVar Ball blind

This is a personal thing, but perhaps you can relate: I’m pretty sure I have built new neural pathways in my brain over the past several months that allow me to completely ignore LaVar Ball. Honestly, unless Lonzo Ball gets blocked by someone and I’m actively glued onto Twitter, I barely even think about the Ball family anymore.

This, I assume, is what happens a couple months after the media saturation point is reached with a certain topic. It’s freeing. I hop on here and, oh, what’s that? Another Ball child has declared for the 2018 NBA Draft? This barely even registers anymore. I’m more enthralled by whatever it is James Harden is doing with his fingers after he dunks. The hell is that?

Call me when they start selling those plastic shoes for like $20,000.

Anthony Davis did a bad social media marketing thing

Anthony Davis shaved his unibrow on March 31. We all guessed it was an April Fool’s Day joke. Then, on April 1, it turned out it was. Only it was also somehow a commercial for Red Bull! Woo!

The problem with this video, if you haven’t seen it, is that it felt like something from half a decade ago. The perfectly positioned logos, the “accidental” drop of the phone while recording it. Everything was so telegraphed. Red Bull can do better than this, honestly, even for a social campaign.

Plus, they didn’t even get the day right for the joke. You can’t start it on March 31. That’s now how it works, guys.

5 Down

Joel Embiid’s got a broken face

What did we do to the basketball gods to deserve this season? Are we going to get a season where everyone is miraculously healthy the entire time to balance things out? What does this have to do with the giant garbage patch in the Pacific ocean?

Starting to think that article about LeBron’s healthcare routine is nonsense. He’s clearly sucking the life force out of other players. At least Philly is still winning.

Vince Carter undercutting Patrick McCaw

This play was ugly for a couple of reasons. First, because Patrick McCaw was getting some run with Stephen Curry (and a bunch of other Golden State Warriors players) out.

Second, this one hurt because we’ve all either seen something like this or been part of something close to this. You’re in the heat of competition, and someone’s brain just goes completely blank for a minute and they do something so unimaginably stupid and out-of-character that it’s inexplicable. Vince Carter knew he did something dumb, and dangerous, and something that wasn’t sporting. McCaw sounds like he’s going to be OK, which is good news at least.

Kawhi Leonard vs. the San Antonio Spurs

Each week I say this is the last time I’m going to mention this, and then some other detail is added that puts it right back into contention as perhaps the biggest off-court storyline of the season. In a year in which the San Antonio Spurs need to take advantage of a dinged-up Golden State Warriors squad, the former NBA Finals MVP is on the bench.

Gregg Popovich mentioned this week that after Leonard returned from rehab in NYC that it’s sort of up to Leonard’s “camp” to decide when and if he’ll return to the floor. I don’t think this means a divorce between Kawhi and the Spurs, but it definitely complicates the interaction between the two sides when they go to negotiate a new contract this summer.

Isaiah Thomas and the Brinks truck

This one is tough. Isaiah Thomas is out with surgery, again, and that has major implications for whether he’s going to get a big, new contract this summer. Odds were already low, but with his hip ailing again Thomas might never get to back up the Brinks truck like he wanted.

It’s a hard situation to analyze because, with all his perceived gerrymandering, Thomas has painted himself as a sort of villain. In reality, he was the heart of the Boston Celtics last year and a legitimate MVP candidate. Now he’s gone all Year 1 LeBron James with the Miami Heat on us. It feels like he wants to be the bad guy.

A lot of guys have had problems with coming back from a hip injury, but so too have many returned as productive players. With time on his hands, let’s hope IT comes back healthy and adapted to a new team next year.

Kyrie Irving’s knee

Kyrie Irving — currently out after knee surgery — needs to come back healthy and quickly. Or maybe not, if you’re a Toronto Raptors fan. But the West, especially with a humbled Warriors squad, isn’t as deep as it seemed to be after several signings in July of 2017. There’s a real shot here to make the Eastern Conference playoffs — which includes a glut of watchable teams including the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Miami Heat — really compare in terms of competitiveness in the first and second rounds.

We need Irving back so the East can have another power squad. Boston is more than holding it together in Irving’s absence (they’re currently on a five-game win streak) but they need him come playoff time. We need him, especially if the top of the East stays where it is and we get a second round matchup between the Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it โ€“ most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season โ€“ the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio โ€“ whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach โ€“ finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.