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Three Things to Know: Did Durant foul LeBron? Probably, but that’s not why Cavs lost.

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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) Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on a late drive? Twice? Probably, but that’s not why Cleveland lost. First things first: This was no NBA Finals preview on Christmas Day when Cleveland traveled to Golden State. Not because these two teams will not meet again in the Finals — I would put the odds at a little better than 50/50 they do — but because both will be different teams come June. The Cavaliers will have Isaiah Thomas starting at the point, and Stephen Curry will be opposite him, that alone changes a lot of dynamics and we’re not even getting into trades, players’ shifting roles, and more.

What we did get on Christmas Day was a great show — a 99-92 Warriors win that ended in controversy that consumed Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the broadcast, not to mention NBA Twitter.

Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on his drives to the rim late? On this play he did if you ask me.

Shockingly, LeBron said he was fouled after the game, Kevin Durant said no.

I have a long-running belief about controversial calls at the end of games: If a team puts itself in that position, it has to live with referee mistakes. Don’t want that play to matter? Then be better before and take it out of the officials’ hands. Cleveland’s bench cost them this game shooting a collective 6-of-26 and getting outplayed all afternoon (the bench has been improved this season, not this day). The Cavaliers starting backcourt (Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith) were a combined 1-of-9 from the floor. The Cavs lack of depth and the fact they have guys on this roster who can be exploited in a playoff series was evident. Frankly, Cleveland lost because right now the Warriors are the better team. LeBron almost changed that, because he’s LeBron, but it wasn’t enough.

There were interesting takeaways from this game, especially looking ahead to a potential NBA Finals rematch (for a fourth straight year). First, Jae Crowder did a respectable job guarding Durant for much of the game. Yes, KD had 25 points on 19 shots, but he’s one of the great scorers the game has ever seen, he’s going to get his. This was manageable for Cleveland. Crowder made him work for his buckets. Crowder has been a disappointment to start the season, but in recent weeks has looked healthier and rounded into form (not so coincidentally when the Cavs went on a winning streak). Having Crowder on Durant opens up a lot of other defensive options for the Cavs.

Also interesting was Steve Kerr going small from the opening tip, starting rookie Jordan Bell opposite Kevin Love and sitting Zaza Pachulia. We will see more variations of this as things heat up for Golden State.

If this is the NBA Finals matchup again, we are going to have an entertaining series. One with controversy.

2) Thunder make a statement in beating Rockets, but the bigger question is what has happened to Houston’s defense? How long have we been saying “once Oklahoma City gets it together…”

Looks like they have. Five straight wins now, the latest came over the Rockets on Christmas Day, 112-107 against Houston. Russell Westbrook had 31 points and 11 assists, and it felt like a coming out party as the big three (Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony) combined for 75 points. As a team, OKC shot 54.4 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three. Andre Roberson was crucial down the stretch making big plays. The Thunder earned this win with their play late.

Houston has lost three in a row, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three losses, the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. What has fueled the Rockets rise to look like a legit threat to the Warriors is not just an elite offense — on pace to be the best in NBA history in points scored per possession — but the fact the defense was top 10 in the league (currently eighth). They have done a good job on the glass, not fouling, and putting weaker defenders (Ryan Anderson, James Harden) in positions to mitigate the damage. But the last three games the Rockets have been a mess defensively, and that’s what they have to clean up to turn this thing around.

3) Sixers show they are all about Joel Embiid, get win over Knicks. This was a quality win for a Sixers team that had been stumbling. Going into Madison Square Garden on Christmas and beating the Knicks is no simple task, and this showed the team can win (even when Ben Simmons is just okay, 8 points on 8 shots).

What this game really showed is now much Philadelphia relies on Joel Embiid. When Embiid was on the court Christmas Day, Philadelphia outscored New York 90-65. They won 105-98 in a close game. Embiid was a force at both ends: he defended well and protected the paint with three blocks, hit a couple of threes, and was the one Sixer consistently attacking and getting to the free throw line. Embiid finished the game with 25 points and 16 rebounds.

Philly shoots itself in the foot with turnovers every game (they lead the league in turnovers by a wide margin) and did it again late on Christmas, with three straight turnovers at one point when they should have put the game away. They let the Knicks hang around.

All that played out Monday, too. The game also was close because of a big night from Enes Kanter, who was a beast inside with 31 points and 22 rebounds — 11 offensive.

The Knicks are currently the eighth seed in the East (tied with Miami for that spot), but they need to now start winning on the road to keep it. New York has had 21 home games and is 15-6 there, but just 12 road games where they are 2-10. Stan Van Gundy conspiracies aside,  this is a team that needs to start winning on the road, or they will be home for the playoffs. Again.

Watch Damian Lillard put up 51 on shorthanded 76ers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Everything is back to normal for Damian Lillard.

The All-Star point guard scored 51 points after a frustrating finish a night earlier, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 124-121 on Sunday.

On Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, Lillard missed a pair of free throws with 18.6 seconds to go and a 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds left in a 122-117 loss. Clippers players Paul George and Patrick Beverley were seen laughing at Lillard’s misfortune.

Lillard got the last laugh Sunday by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today,” he said. “It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Portland bounced back and pulled within a half-game of Memphis for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers increased their chances of qualifying for the play-in series, which will start Saturday.

The 76ers lost much more than the game. All-Star center Joel Embiid left in the first quarter with what the team called a left ankle injury, and he did not return. He contested a shot, then backed up and stepped awkwardly into the stanchion. He had been averaging 30 points per game since the restart.

76ers coach Brett Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid would miss time.

“I’m going to learn more physically,” Brown said. “I don’t know enough to comment on it.”

It was more bad injury news for the 76ers. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons is out indefinitely with an injured left knee.

Josh Richardson scored a season-high 34 points and Alec Burks added 20 for Philadelphia. The 76ers would have moved into a tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a win.

Without their stars, the 76ers fell behind by 17 in the second quarter and trailed 67-58 at halftime.

The game tightened up late. Philadelphia’s Al Horford hit a 3-pointer to trim Portland’s lead to 122-121. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic made two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to put his team up three. Richardson missed a 3-pointer for Philadelphia, and the 76ers couldn’t get another shot off after a scramble for the rebound.

“I thought our guys fought,” Brown said. “I really thought the spirit of the group was fantastic. We called upon many different players that I think played with a spirit and a passion that you’re proud of.”

Zion Williamson, New Orleans eliminated from playoff chase; Kings, too

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There was no team hyped like the New Orleans Pelicans heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando. They had Zion Williamson healthy (or so they thought), and they had been playing the best of any of the teams in the playoff chase just before the coronavirus shut the league (and nation) down. A basketball-starved nation dreamed of a LeBron James vs. Zion showdown in the first round.

The reality of the bubble was not so kind to those dreams or New Orleans.

The Pelicans lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113, despite 25 points from Williamson. Combined with the Trail Blazers beating the 76ers 124-121, the Pelicans became mathematically eliminated from reaching the nine seed and getting into a play-in series in the West.

The Pelicans are out of the playoffs. New Orleans will go through the motions of two more games in the bubble, but don’t be surprised if key players rest. The Pelicans went 2-4 in the bubble with offensive struggles holding the team back.

The Sacramento Kings also have been eliminated, extending the franchise’s playoff drought to 14 years. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs was 2006.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit as the eighth seed in the West, with Portland the ninth seed and just half-a-game back. San Antonio (one game back of Memphis) and Phoenix (1.5 games back) are both alive in the playoff chase still.

New Orleans getting eliminated ends J.J. Redick‘s playoff streak at 13 seasons, the longest of any active player and tied for seventh-longest all-time (the record is a tie at 19 between Karl Malone and John Stockton, who did it together). Getting eliminated is what leads to a 1000-mile stare meme.

 

 

 

 

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.