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) Russell Westbrook gets the last staredown against Joel Embiid, Thunder beat 76ers. It got a little personal between the All-Stars Westbrook and Embiid on Sunday — but Westbrook had the last staredown.
There’s history here, remember these teams played a triple-overtime thriller back on Dec. 15 — you remember, the game where Joel Embiid waved goodbye to Steven Adams after the latter fouled out, then Russell Westbrook told Embiid to go home — and they didn’t disappoint in this game either. It started in the first quarter when Joel Embiid drove the lane and threw it down hard putting Russell Westbrook in the poster.
Embiid even took to Instagram to gloat about that one a little (and notice the location).
It made Westbrook angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. The game was close much of the way, and when the Thunder went on a 15-0 third-quarter run the Sixers showed resilience bouncing back to make it a game again. However, midway through the fourth quarter when Paul George returned to action, the Thunder went on a 21-9 run that sealed the win.
Westbrook finished with 37 points and 14 assists — and stared Embiid down as he dribbled out the clock.
That ends the season series between these teams, with the Thunder up 2-0, but I’d like to petition the league for a third game. At least.
2) Painful weekend injuries to DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Roberson will change playoff picture. Whenever asked on radio interviews or elsewhere how the bottom half of the West would shake out the second half of the season — where the six-seed and nine-seed are separated by two games — I have gone to a stock and rather boring answer: The team that suffers the most injuries will be the one on the outside looking in.
New Orleans suffered maybe the most significant injury of the season late in their biggest win of the season (vs. Houston) Friday night — DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles and is done for the season. The Pelicans had been leaning heavily on the All-Star starter Cousins — maybe too heavily. An Achilles injury is an overuse injury (built up over time but usually exacerbated) and as Tom Haberstroh of Bleacher Report noted Cousins played 52 minutes Monday against the Bulls, had been in four OT games in a nine-day span, and Cousins had averaged a very high 39.8 minutes per game in his previous 10 contests.
Without him, the Pelicans blew a 21-point second-quarter lead (not that crazy, but certainly not good) to the Clippers and lost on Sunday. The general concern after Cousins went down was the load now on Anthony Davis and how the team would do when he sat (without Cousins there to stagger with him). For the second part of that, the Pelicans were fine, they were +12 in his second-quarter rest — but Davis played the entire second half. Davis and Jrue Holiday played well, but without Cousins nor enough shooting on the roster, the Pelicans face a tough battle to stay in the playoffs. They had a three-game cushion over the nine-seed Clippers before the injury, but already that is down to two games with half a season to go. The Pelicans are in a fight to hold on to that playoff spot.
The other significant injury over the weekend is not going to impact who gets into the playoffs, but it will have an impact once the playoffs start — OKC’s Andre Roberson blew out his patellar tendon in his knee and is done for the season. Roberson is not one of the Thunder’s “big four” but is a key part of their top-five NBA defense: The reason is he was a long, switchable, quality defender who could share a big load on that end with George. When Roberson is on the court this season, the Thunder defense is 11.9 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. He is long and switchable and alongside Paul George gave OKC defensive options in big games. Not anymore. They will miss him against (probably) Minnesota in the first round, and especially if it’s the Warriors in the second round. If the Thunder get bounced in the first round or crushed in the second, how much will that impact Paul George’s decision over the summer?
One other injury note: Mike Conley also is out for the season, the Grizzlies announced, and he will have surgery to fix his chronic Achilles issues. Unlike Cousins and Roberson, the Conley news doesn’t change the playoff picture — the Grizzlies are well out of it at this point. They may impact the playoff chase with a trade of Tyreke Evans — the hot rumor is to Boston — however, they are not moving Marc Gasol. Still, this injury sucks. Conley only played in 13 games this season, and the Grizzlies were 7-6 with him.
3) Tyronn Lue sits Isaiah Thomas for the fourth quarter, Cavaliers go on a 31-17 run to win going away. Isaiah Thomas isn’t the reason the Cavaliers defense is second worst in the NBA, but he isn’t helping things, either. Cleveland’s defense had been awful this season while Thomas was out the first months of the season, but upon his return it is a disturbingly poor 117.2 points allowed per 100 possessions when he is on the court.
On Sunday, coach Tyronn Lue went to stagger the minutes between Thomas and LeBron James more. In the first half, Thomas sat midway through the first quarter, then came back in to start the second quarter while LeBron rested. In the second half, it got more interesting — LeBron got about five minutes of rest at the end of the third quarter while Thomas stayed on the court. Then to start the fourth Thomas sat and it was the “LeBron and the bench” lineup that has worked so well this season and did again — the Cavaliers went on a 23-7 run near the end of the game to get the win.
It wasn’t just Thomas — Tristan Thompson didn’t play the fourth either. Kevin Love and J.R. Smith barely got in. Lue is looking for any rotation that can spark this team, and sometimes right now that’s going to mean a lot less Thomas on the court. He is looking better, but he is still not moving that well or looking all that much like his old self this season. It’s something to keep an eye on.
Also, LeBron James is really good — he finished with 25 points and 14 assists.