Five Takeaways from an NBA Monday: Durant is back and so are Thunder

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It’s Monday, and all you can think about is turkey and football on Thursday. But you have to get through a few work days, and the NBA machine does not stop. Here is what you may have missed Monday night while trying to figure out what to do with 600 Chris Denorfia Padre bobbleheads:

1) Kevin Durant is back and he is still a bad man. Russell Westbrook is elite. Kevin Durant is elite. But pair them and you quickly see why Oklahoma City has to be considered a potential title contender — when Durant and Westbrook are on the court together this season, the Thunder have an offensive rating of 117.5 points per 100 possessions and are beating opponents by 19.1 points per 100. Nobody can stop those two together (throw Serge Ibaka in the mix and it’s +17.1 per 100).

The Utah Jazz couldn’t stop them Monday night. Durant returned from a strained hamstring after missing six games — where the Thunder were an inconsistent 3-3 — and scored 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting. Behind him, the Thunder had no problem with Utah, winning 111-89 in Utah. KD has returned, and so have the Thunder.

2) Kemba Walker is having a huge season. Just ask the Kings. If you’re looking for a guy having a huge season yet flying under the radar, it’s Kemba Walker in Charlotte. If you don’t believe me, ask the Sacramento Kings, who watched him take over the fourth quarter (9-of-10 shooting, including hitting three threes in the final frame) and finish the night with 39 points. Walker is scoring 16.3 points per game this season, shooting 37 percent from three and is just being more efficient in a more up-tempo system with a little space to work. He’s playing at an All-Star level (whether he makes the game is another matter, the guard spot in the East is loaded). Walker also thought he had the game winner Monday night to beat the Kings, but Rudy Gay had other plans (the Hornets did win in OT).

3) While everyone watches Kristaps Porzingis, the Heat keep right on winning, beating Knicks. Here is your required-by-law Porzingis Hype update — he had 20 points and 14 rebounds, having another impressive game on Monday night. Oh, and by the way, the Heat won the game. Everyone wants to look past Miami but they just went 6-1 on their recent homestand, and while games such as the need to come from way behind to beat Philly raise an eyebrow, the fact of the matter is Miami is 9-4 this season, second best in the East, with the best defense in the NBA allowing just 94 points per 100 possessions (stats via NBA.com). If their offense comes together like you would think it should, the Heat become a dangerous team.

4) LeBron James passes the Big O for another milestone. It happened with five minutes left in the second quarter. LeBron drove the lane and kicked it out to the corner, finding Kevin Love who drained the three. That assist moved LeBron passed Norm Nixon into 25th all-time in scoring.

With that LeBron joined the legendary Oscar Robertson as the only players in the top 25 all-time in scoring and assists in the NBA. Later in the game, LeBron moved past Reggie Miller for 18th all-time on the scoring list. At this point in his career, LeBron is just going to rack up milestones seemingly every time he steps on the court.

5) Just a reminder: Philly has lost 25 games in a row dating back to last season. Nobody is really going to count it because it stretches across two seasons, and we don’t like those kinds of records, but after a loss Monday night to Minnesota (where Jahlil Okafor outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns), the Sixers are now 0-15 this season, which when combined with the 0-10 finish to last season makes them an ugly 0-25. The NBA’s longest losing streak is 26 games. Just consider this a little reminder that the Sixers remain just awful.

Lakers’ LeBron James says he could need offseason foot surgery

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LeBron James wanted back on the court. He saw the glimpses of what this current roster can do when healthy and focused — the same glimpses that have Laker exceptionalism running strong in Los Angeles — and he sees a West without a dominant team. Together those things mean opportunity.

LeBron could have shut it down when he felt something pop in his foot last month, admitting that two doctors told him to get surgery. However, the “LeBron James of foot doctors” told him he could be back this season — and he made that return Sunday. Still, LeBron admitted he could need off-season surgery.

“I don’t know. Right now, I don’t need it, so we’ll see what happens. I’ll probably get another MRI at the end of the season and go from there. But if I end up having to get surgery after the season, you guys won’t know. I don’t talk to you guys in the offseason, and by the time next season starts, I’ll be fine. I’ll be ready to go.”

As for what motivated him to get back on the court this season and not shut it down.

“Now we sitting at a chance to be able to… to hell with the play-in, we actually can be a top-[six] seed. That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this, obviously, so — well, I don’t really want to say changed my mindset, it just enhanced what I was trying to do as far as my workouts, as far as my treatment and everything”

The Lakers sit tied for 9/10 in the West, one game below .500. While LeBron can say, “to hell with the play-in,” his Lakers would need help from the Clippers or Warriors to climb into the top six even though they are only 1.5 games back (time is short for L.A., if the Warriors or Clippers go 4-3 the rest of the way, the Lakers need to go 6-2 over their last eight). Los Angeles also is just a game up on Dallas for the 11 seed, and if the losses pile up they could fall out of the play-in completely.

With LeBron back, missing the play-in is unlikely. But having him back (and eventually a healthy D'Angelo Russell, who was out Sunday with a hip issue) also is no guarantee of wins — the Lakers still need peak Anthony Davis to compete. When he has a solid game of 15 points, nine rebounds and five assists (as he did Sunday), they lose. The Lakers need bubble Davis every night, or even if they make the postseason it will be short-lived.

Dončić dodges suspension, NBA rescinds 16th technical

Dallas Mavericks v Charlotte Hornets
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This was unexpected, especially after crew chief Kevin Scott said after the game last night: “Doncic was assessed a technical foul for his use of profanity directed at the officials in protest to a no-call that was correctly judged in postgame video review.”

The NBA league office reviewed the incident (as it does with all technicals) and rescinded what would have been Luka Doncic’s 16th technical.

That 16th technical would have triggered an automatic one game suspension. With it rescinded, Dončić is clear to play Monday night when the Mavericks take on the Pacers.

Sunday night in Charlotte, Dončić was given a technical when he didn’t get a call on a leaning baseline jumper and said something to the nearby official.

This incident comes days after Dončić was fined $35,000  for making a money gesture towards a referee in frustration after a  Mavericks loss.

Through all this the Mavericks have lost four straight, 7-of-9, and have slid back to 11th in the West, outside even the play-in. Their team is disintegrating and if they don’t pick up some wins fast they have less than two weeks until they are on summer vacation.

MVP showdown off: 76ers to sit Joel Embiid due to calf tightness

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
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Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.

Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.

Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.

Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.

From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.

James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.

But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.

Joel Embiid not stressing about MVP: ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.’

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
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Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).

Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.

Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.

People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).

This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.

Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.