Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid returns, dominates inside, Sixers look like playoff threat

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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) Joel Embiid returns, dominates inside, Sixers look like playoff threat in beating Pacers. Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler are All-Stars. Tobias Harris should have been. They are all top 25 players in the NBA.

Joel Embiid is better than any of them — a true top-10 difference maker — and the Sixers need him if they are to be a real threat in the playoffs.

How much the big man in the middle means to Philadelphia was evident Sunday in his return from an eight-game absence — he had 33 points on 21 shots (18 of those points in the fourth quarter), 12 rebounds, and dominated the paint in a critical Sixers win over the Pacers, 106-89.

Embiid was a physical force inside that got Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis in foul trouble, both Pacers big men picked up their fourth foul early in the third quarter and had to be cautious the rest of the way. Also, combined the two Pacers’ bigs shot 3-of-14. Meanwhile, Embiid shot 8-of-12 at the rim (although his outside shot showed plenty of rust, as did his entire game early). The Pacers shot 40.8 percent (20-of-49) in the paint.

The Sixers as a team cranked up the defense in the third quarter to take the lead, holding Indiana to 3-of-20 shooting for the frame.

The win moved the Sixers into a tie with the Pacers for the three seed in the East, with the Sixers likely to hold on to that spot because the Pacers have the much tougher schedule the rest of the way. For the Sixers that means avoiding Boston in a first-round series, which is something both sides wanted.

The Sixers have a lot to figure out during the last 15 games if they are going to be a genuine threat in the second round and beyond of the East playoffs. The halfcourt offense looked stagnant at points. Simmons has liked playing in the post at times this season, but that’s more complicated with Embiid out there, that dance needs to be worked out. Brett Brown has to figure out his rotations. The players just need to gel, sacrifice, and learn to trust each other.

But none of that was going to work without Embiid in the middle of it all. He is their anchor, their keystone, and the guy that makes it all work. He’s back, which means the Sixers are back to being a playoff threat.

2) Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. throws down a dunk of the year candidate. Damn. This just is not fair.

That is reminiscent of some of those old Blake Griffin dunks where he just seemed to fly and threw it into the basket. That’s what Jones does here. There are not many, if any, better dunks this season.

(By the way, if you’re going to argue it’s not a dunk because he threw it in the basket just stop, go sit in a meditative pose, and question why it is you hate fun and feel the need to be contrarian on such little things. Let it go and enjoy life and all basketball has to offer.)

3) Suns snap 18-straight game losing streak to Warriors; Kevin Durant injures ankle. The Warriors are bored, but is it morphing into more than that?

Before we question the Warriors, we have to start by propping up the giant killers, the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix is one of the NBA’s worst teams, one of the three teams with the best odds (14 percent) of landing Zion Williamson, yet they have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks and now Golden State Warriors in recent weeks. The Suns snapped an 18-game losing streak to the Warriors, coming from 16 points down at one point to win 115-111 behind 37 points from Devin Booker.

Against Denver last Friday night we saw what the Warriors can do when they focus and flip the switch. That’s the Warriors we will see in the playoffs.

But the Warriors had issues in this game.

The potentially biggest was Kevin Durant going down with an ankle injury midway through the fourth quarter.

Coach Steve Kerr said he didn’t think the injury was that bad, but as with all sprained ankles it is how things look the next morning that matters most.

Kerr was frustrated with his team and late in the game was caught saying what looks like “I’m so f****** tired of Draymond’s s*** …” — and that video went viral.

What he was referring to — attitude, missed shots, missed assignments — is unknown. Emotions were high and Kerr should have been frustrated in anyone in yellow yesterday. No Warrior played well.

Particularly on defense. Starting in the second quarter (when the boredom seemed to kick in) they had a had a lot of missed assignments, they didn’t stay in front of their man, and generally just went through the motions. It was an ugly loss. After the game, Klay Thompson tried a different tack and said the team needed more from the fans.

The fans will be deafening in Oracle if they are given something to cheer for. The players failed at that assignment.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).

Watch Herb Jones inbound off Pokusevski’s back, seal win for Pelicans

Oklahoma City Thunder v New Orleans Pelicans
Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images
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With 2.3 seconds left in the game and the Thunder down 2, they needed to steal the inbounds pass from New Orleans to have a real chance. That’s why when Aleksej Pokusevski walked on the court it looked like he was going to guard the inbounder, Herbert Jones.

Instead, Pokusevski turned his back to Jones, putting himself in position to step in front of anyone cutting to the ball to catch the inbounds. Except, Jones made the clever play to seal the game.

Pokusevski fouled Jones, who sank both free throws and sealed the 105-101 Pelicans win.

The Pelicans got 23-8-8 from Zion Williamson and picked up a win without CJ McCollum or Brandon Ingram in the lineup. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander continued his dominant start to the season and scored 31.