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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.

Stephen Curry reportedly will return to Warriors lineup Sunday vs. Wizards

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After four months off, the Warriors were looking for a soft landing spot to ease Stephen Curry back into the rotation.

How about Sunday, vs. Washington and the worst defense in the NBA this season?

That’s the plan, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Curry has said for some time he was targeting March 1 for a return, this would be that exact date (to be fair to the Wizards, they have played better defense of late). After that, Golden State plays at Denver on the third, has a Finals rematch against Toronto at the Chase Center on March 5, then the 76ers visit the Warriors on the seventh.

Curry suffered a fractured hand just four games into the season when Suns’ center Aron Baynes fell on him. Recovery required two surgeries, one to put pins in to stabilize the bone through the healing process, then a second one to remove those pins once the recovery was far enough along.

While some fans had called for Curry to sit out the season and tank, Warriors coach Steve Kerr emphatically shot that idea down. As he should.

For one thing, Kerr wants to build some familiarity and chemistry between Curry and newly acquired Andrew Wiggins this season. Having Curry back may mean the Warriors don’t finish with the worst record in the league this season (which they have right now) but with the flattened out draft lottery odds that’s not as big an issue. Besides, this is not a deep draft. This is not a situation where the Warriors will get instant help — in our podcast recently, NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster described it as the top three picks in this draft would be 6-10 most seasons. The Warriors may ultimately try to trade their pick for a player who can help more next season.

Ben Simmons has nerve impingement in lower back, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

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The biggest concern with Ben Simmons back issue is not that it will have him out weeks, it’s that nobody is saying what exactly is causing it.

Simmons has a nerve impingement in his lower back that will have him getting treatment daily, and he will be re-evaluated in two weeks, something first reported  by Shams Charania of The Athletic and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski provided some context, but nothing that is very encouraging.

A nerve impingement — what is commonly referred to as a pinched nerve — is exactly what it sounds like: Something is pressing on the nerve, “pinching” it and causing pain.

The big question: What is impinging on the nerve? That’s what Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes asked.

This does not sound like something that is going to be resolved in two weeks and Simmons will be back to normal.

Simmons injured his back last Wednesday in practice while grabbing a rebound, according to coach Brett Brown. Simmons sat out last Thursday’s Sixers game against the Nets, tried to play on Saturday vs. the Bucks but had to come out after one quarter, and has not set foot on the court since.

Simmons averages 16.9 points, 8.3 assists, 7.9 rebounds a game, not to mention a league-best 2.2 steals a night. The All-Star is a core part of the Sixers rotation and will miss significant time they try to climb up into the top four in the East and get home court for the first round of the playoffs. Shake Milton started Monday in Simmons place.

Tilman Ferttita: Rockets don’t fear Lakers, Clippers like they did Warriors

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta
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Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta likes to talk.

Volume 48.

Fertitta, via Kirk Bohls of Statesman:

“I think Milwaukee is head over heels above everybody else,” said Fertitta

“We just need to get home court for the first and second rounds and see what happens.”

“None of us fear L.A. or the Clippers or Denver like we feared Golden State,” he said. “It’s not like how we were scared of them. We could easily win the West this year or get knocked out in the first round. Both L.A. teams, Denver, Houston, we’re all excellent teams. Just comes down to somebody gets hot and makes a shot. Our chances are as good as they’ve ever been.”

The Rockets stood up to the Warriors far more than any other team. But that was most true before Fertitta put his imprint on the franchise. He’s somewhat culpable for Houston cowering to Golden State.

As far as this season, Fertitta is right all around: The Bucks are great, combining last year’s success with important playoff lessons. Houston could easily win the West or lose in the first round. The Lakers, Clippers and Nuggets shouldn’t be feared. (Nobody fears the Nuggets, though they are a real championship contender.)

But the Lakers and Clippers also look like darned good playoff teams. Even if not predicting victory, Fertitta’s comments could become bulletin-board material in Los Angeles.

Rumor: Warriors acquired first-rounder, Andrew Wiggins for Giannis Antetokounmpo trade

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Andrew Wiggins, who's now with Warriors
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The Warriors have the NBA shook.

Even in last place.

It was more understandablenot necessarily right, but understandable – when Golden State was dominating. The Warriors won a title, won 73 games, signed Kevin Durant then won two more titles. In the midst of the run, they were treated as invincible. A team that great had never signed an outside free agent that great. Golden State really did seem “light years ahead.”

So, when the Warriors traded D'Angelo Russell for Andrew Wiggins and picks, some people cowered about what Golden State had up its sleeve next. Speculation even turned to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who faces a super-max decision this offseason and looked quite chummy with Stephen Curry (similar to how Kevin Durant once did while still with the Thunder).

Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

Some around the league believe the Golden State Warriors acquired a first-round pick from the Minnesota Timberwolves, along with Andrew Wiggins, with the notion of a potential future trade with the Bucks.

This is so silly.

Minnesota’s first-rounder (top-three-protected in 2021, unprotected in 2022) is a nice asset. The Warriors’ 2020 first-rounder will also land high in the draft. But Wiggins didn’t suddenly turn into a valuable player in Golden State. Owed $94,738,170 over the next three years, Wiggins still carries negative value. The Warriors aren’t now deftly positioned to land Antetokounmpo.

Golden State showed incredible vision by building an excellent team that appealed to Durant and clearing cap space to acquire him. But the Warriors got multiple fortunate breaks – Stephen Curry taking a smaller contract extension while injured in 2012, Golden State blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2016 NBA Finals, the salary cap spiking in 2016.

The Warriors can’t duplicate everything, swoop in and land Antetokounmpo.

Sure, it’s possible Wiggins improves in Golden State. Maybe Antetokounmpo will decline to sign a super-max extension, which should force Milwaukee to at least strongly consider trading him. It’s also conceivable Antetokounmpo threatens not to re-sign with anyone besides the Warriors, scaring off other teams and leaving Golden State’s offer the best that the Bucks’ get.

But it’s such a remote possibility of all that happening, it’s not worth worrying about.

This is paranoia about the Warriors at its worst.