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Three things we learned Monday: Don’t say the Sixers suck anymore

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We know you spent Monday night mesmerized by the LeBron/Hamilton send up, so here is what you could have learned watching a full slate of NBA games…

1) Sixers have won four in a row at home, 3-of-4 overall. You can stop mocking them now. The Philadelphia 76ers are a real basketball team.

Not a real good team, mind you, they remain last in the Eastern Conference. But they are a competitive team now — and one on a winning streak. With Monday night’ s 101-94 win over Miami the Sixers have won consecutive games for the first time since March 2015 (it didn’t happen last season). They have won three-of-four overall and four in a row at home. If you want to get overly optimistic, they are 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the East. But that’s a bit much. Still, they are no longer the worst team in the NBA (that honor goes to Dallas), and every night they put up a fight.

Philadelphia has the guy in the lead of the entirely-too-early-to-discuss Rookie of the Year race with Joel Embiid, who is averaging 18.4 points and 7.8 rebounds a game in limited minutes every night. Monday night “The Process” faced off against Hassan Whiteside — who somewhat quietly is having a monster season — and held his own.

Embiid has work to do — his moves still can be a bit stiff, like the guy spent the last two years practicing them against chairs and 6’2” coaches. The big man is getting 35 percent of his looks off post ups and is shooting just 42 percent on those, which is pretty average but below where he can get (stat via Synergy Sports). Embiid is shooting just 57.1 percent in the restricted area right at the rim, a little below where the Sixers want him to be. That said, he is dangerous as a roll man after setting the pick — he has an eFG% of 64 percent in that situation, in part because he can knock down the three. Embiid is 11-of-22 from three this season.

Here is the stat that matters: The Sixers are nine points per 100 possessions better when Embiid is on the court (and around Christmas the team will look at raising his minutes limit of 25). When he gets help from veteran Gerald Henderson (19 points vs. Miami) or Nik Stauskas, the Sixers can put up some points. At least enough to be competitive and win some games.

The little hot streak the Sixers are on likely comes to an end with their next four games being against Memphis, Chicago, Cleveland, and Toronto. But you can bet they will be competitive in those games, too.

2) Giannis Antetokounmpo is killing it as a point guard for the Bucks. This season Jason Kidd put the ball in the hands of his Greek Freak and turned him loose — and it has worked. Don’t take my word for it, ask Orlando as Antetokounmpo dropped a triple-double on them with 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists (he also had five steals and three blocks).

On the season, Antetokounmpo is averaging 21.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game, shooting 49.3 percent, and he has the PER of an All-Star at 24.8. On the downside, he is shooting just 16.7 percent from three, his midrange jumper strikes fear in no one, and teams are going under picks on him and clogging the middle. Still, you see the room to grow. You could tell in the win Monday that he is the leader — when he plays with energy, particularly on defense, the rest of the team follows.

As a side note: Maybe the most interesting lineup Kidd rolled out Monday (and one that had a 16-2 run early in the fourth) was a small ball with Antetokounmpo, Mirza Teletovic, and Michael Beasley as the bigs. Jabari Parker is playing too well to do that all the time, but it was a good change of pace.

3) Gregg Popovich wants the Spurs to respect the game. The Spurs won Monday night, beating a depleted Dallas team 96-91 at home. But that didn’t stop the postgame Gregg Popovich rant — and we love nothing more than a Popovich rant.

Popovich said before the Laker game last Friday that this early in the season he doesn’t watch video of other teams — he only watches the Spurs, he wants to get his own house in order then he starts to worry about who else is out there. The Spurs are 11-3 and on a six-game win streak, the house seems pretty tight. But Popovich is right — they didn’t respect the game Monday night. That, more than just about anything, will set Popovich off.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.

Jerry Colangelo: Team USA would’ve won FIBA World Cup if not for injuries

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Team USA finished seventh in the 2019 FIBA World Cup – the Americans’ worst-ever finish in a major tournament.

Why did the U.S. fare so poorly?

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo had sharp words for the many stars who withdrew. But that’s not his only explanation.

Kyle Kuzma suffered an ankle injury that kept him off the roster. Jayson Tatum missed the final six games with his own ankle injury. Marcus Smart was banged up and missed time throughout the event.

Colangelo, via Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

“I believe that if we didn’t have those injuries, we would have won,” said Colangelo. “The injuries were just too much to absorb.”

Maybe.

Those players – especially Tatum and Smart, who occupied a roster spots – would’ve helped. But even with those two, the Americans were vulnerable. Australia beat them in an exhibition, and Turkey nearly upset them in the first round. France and Serbia clearly outplayed them in the knockout phase. Team USA just lacked its usual talent.

Perhaps more top Americans will play in the 2020 Olympics. That will make the biggest difference.

If USA Basketball had attracted more stars for the World Cup, it likely could’ve withstood a few injuries. This roster allowed little margin for error.

Jarrett Culver enlivens Timberwolves’ otherwise-quiet offseason

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Timberwolves are the only team with two max-salary players under age 29. Heck, they’re the only team with two max-salary players under age 25.

But Minnesota isn’t set.

Far from it.

Though Karl-Anthony Towns (23) is already a star and sometimes looks like a budding superstar, Andrew Wiggins (24) has stagnated on his max extension. Add expensive contracts for Jeff Teague and Gorgui Dieng, and the Timberwolves have limited cap flexibility. With veterans too good to allow deep tanking, Minnesota also has limited means to upgrade through the draft.

New Timberwolves president Gersson Rosas was likely always bound to limit his impact this summer. Minnesota faced few clear pressing decisions. Any big moves would start the clock toward Rosas getting evaluated on his prestigious job. In one of his main decisions, Rosas retained head coach Ryan Saunders, an ownership favorite.

Yet, in this environment, Rosas still found a simple way to add a potential long-term difference maker.

The Timberwolves entered the draft with the No. 11 pick – right after a near-consensus top 10 would’ve been off the board. They left the draft with No. 6 pick Jarrett Culver.

All it took to trade up with the Suns was Dario Saric, who would’ve helped Minnesota this season but probably not enough to achieve meaningful success. He’ll become a free agent next summer and is in line for a raise the Timberwolves might not wanted to give.

Culver is not a lock to flourish in the NBA. But Minnesota had no business adding a prospect with so much potential. This was a coup.

Otherwise, the Timberwolves remained predictably quiet, tinkering on the fringe of the rotation. They added Jake Layman (three years, $11,283,255) in a sign-and-trade with the Trail Blazers. They took Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham off the hands of the hard-capped Warriors, getting cash for their trouble. They signed Noah Vonleh (one year, $2 million) and Jordan Bell (one year, minimum). They claimed Tyrone Wallace off waivers.

With their own free agents getting bigger offers, Minnesota didn’t match Tyus Jones‘ offer sheet with the Grizzlies (three years, $26,451,429) and watched Derrick Rose walk to the Pistons (two years, $15 million). For where the Timberwolves are, the far-cheaper Napier should handle backup point guard just fine.

Minnesota is methodically gaining flexibility. Teague’s contract expires next summer, Dieng’s the summer after that. The big question is how to handle Wiggins, but that will wait.

With Towns locked in the next five years, Rosas has plenty of runway before he must take off. Nabbing Culver was a heck of a way to accelerate from the gate.

Offseason grade: B-

Report: Iman Shumpert rejects offer from Rockets, who’ll have several familiar names in minicamp

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Iman Shumpert is the best free agent available.

Why hasn’t he signed yet? Apparently because he spent the offseason negotiating with the Rockets, but those talks haven’t produced a deal.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Kelly Iko of The Athletic:

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic:

I wonder whether Houston tried to sign Shumpert to a contract similar to Nene’s, creating another trade chip. The Rockets are close to the luxury tax and probably wouldn’t guarantee Shumpert much. It doesn’t take months to negotiate a simple minimum contract.

Shumpert (29) is a credible wing in a league starving for them. He played well for the Kings last season before getting traded to Houston, where he struggled. Other teams should be interested.

The Rockets have just nine players with guaranteed salaries. There’s plenty of room for some of these past-their-prime veterans to make the regular-season roster. It might mostly depend on which of Terrence Jones (27), Nick Young (34), Luc Mbah a Moute (33), Corey Brewer (33), Raymond Felton (35) and Thabo Sefolosha (35) are in the best shape at this stage.