Associated Press

Embiid has 21 points, 17 rebounds, leads 76ers past Kings

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A little rest and a taste of spring did a lot for Jimmy Butler.

Butler had 22 points, six rebounds and seven assists while playing with the type of assertiveness coach Brett Brown says the 76ers need from him in Philadelphia’s 123-114 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Friday night.

Joel Embiid added 21 points and 17 rebounds and made some big plays on both ends of the court late in the fourth quarter for the 76ers, who won their third in a row to pull even with idle Indiana for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia holds the tiebreaker with the Pacers and is trying to maintain hold of home court in a first-round playoff series, something Brown said he coveted before the contest. Fifth-seeded Boston is two games behind the 76ers and Pacers.

In order to secure home court and go deep in the playoffs, Brown knows he’ll need Butler to play the way he did against the Kings.

“He was our bell ringer,” Brown said. “We will not be as good as we can be without him playing the way he played tonight.”

Butler rested in Philadelphia’s last game, a 106-99 victory over Cleveland on Tuesday. And he felt even more refreshed by Friday’s weather in Philly, which reached 75 degrees.

“That’s all it takes,” Butler said. “Rest and good weather. It makes my knees not ache.”

And it’s only going to warm up as the postseason draws near, a great sign for 76ers fans.

“The snow is gone,” Butler said. “We’re good. We’re ready to rock.”

Tobias Harris and JJ Redick each added 19 points and Ben Simmons contributed 18 for the 76ers.

Harrison Barnes and De'Aaron Fox had 16 points apiece for Sacramento, which lost its third in a row and seventh in the last nine to further hurt its playoff push. The Kings, who last made the postseason in 2006, entered ninth in the West, five games behind the Clippers.

“We’re playing hard, we’re playing the right way, we’re playing together,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “The wins are going to come.”

And how?

“Don’t play Golden State, Oklahoma City, Denver, Philly, Boston . I can go on,” Joerger joked.

With Philadelphia clinging to a four-point lead with 3 minutes remaining, Embiid blocked Willie Cauley-Stein‘s layup attempt. Two possessions later, Embiid rejected Barnes’ close-range try before hitting a short jumper of his own to make it 121-114 with 1:45 remaining.

“At the end of the day, I think Joel Embiid made two defensive plays that were terrific,” Joerger said.

The Kings were playing one night after a 126-120 loss at Boston, a game in which they had a 17-point first-half lead.

Against Philadelphia, Sacramento played from behind from the outset. Philadelphia increased its 62-58 halftime advantage to as many as 13 in the third quarter on Redick’s 3 that made it 93-80 with 2:13 left in the period.

The 76ers had a 10-point advantage to start the fourth, but Yogi Ferrell‘s 3 capped a 9-2 Kings run to start the period that pulled Sacramento within 101-98 with 9:25 to play. But Simmons scored consecutive buckets from close range to increase the lead to seven and Sacramento never would get closer than three the rest of the way.

 

Report: Pistons granted disabled-player exception for Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin
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The Pistons’ application for a Blake Griffin disabled-player exception?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The Pistons have hung in the playoff race. At 16-28, they’re in ninth place and three games out. Detroit had been vague about Griffin’s timeline.

But eliminates any reasonable hope of Griffin returning for a stretch run. An NBA-appointed doctor ruled Griffin is “substantially more likely than not” to be out through June 15.

The Pistons get a $9,258,000 exception that can be used to acquire a player on the last year of his contract via trade, signing or waiver. Almost certainly unwilling to pay the luxury tax this season, Detroit currently has a payroll too high to take advantage. But if the Pistons trade someone like Andre Drummond, Derrick Rose or Langston Galloway, the exception could prove useful.

Nuggets: Mason Plumlee out at least 2-4 weeks

Mason Plumlee
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Mason Plumlee got hurt in the first half, underwent x-rays he said were negative then returned in the second half to help the Nuggets beat the Timberwolves on Monday.

But he and Denver will suffer a much bigger loss.

Nuggets release:

Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee has been diagnosed with a right cuboid injury and his status will be reevaluated in approximately two to four weeks.

The injury occurred during the Nuggets game at Minnesota on Monday, January 20th.

Obviously, this raises questions about whether Plumlee should have returned against Minnesota.

This is another key setback for Denver, which already has Paul Millsap, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris sidelined.

The Nuggets (30-13) are locked in a high-stakes battle with the Clippers (31-13) and Jazz (30-13) for the Nos. 2-4 seeds in the Western Conference. The No. 2 seed would get home-court advantage in the second round and avoid the Lakers until the conference finals. The No. 3 seed would avoid the Lakers until the conference finals. The No. 4 seed would do neither.

Nikola Jokic is now Denver’s only healthy center. Expect Jerami Grant to play the position more often. He’s versatile enough to do it, and he can be effective there in certain matchups. But the Nuggets lose selectivity in when to deploy Grant at center, a lineup they were already reluctant to use.

Denver has played just 24 minutes all season with Grant on, Jokic and Plumlee off. (The Nuggets are a not-encouraging -11 in that time).

The trade deadline is just over two weeks away. Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez already looked like prime trade candidates. Could this push Denver toward moving one of those youngsters for immediate help? The Nuggets shouldn’t overreact to losing a backup center who should return well in advance of the playoffs. But they also don’t want to overburden Jokic/slip in the standings over the next month.

The All-Star break begins in three weeks. If Plumlee is still sidelined, that’ll at least give him longer to recover without missing games. But with the trade deadline looming, Denver has bigger decisions to make before then.

Report: Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald buys share of Phoenix Suns

Larry Fitzgerald
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Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald sat in on the Phoenix Suns’ basketball-executive interviews last year.

Now, he’ll have a more formal role within the organization.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers bought a share of the Bucks in 2018.

The NBA reportedly mandates that all new minority owners buy at least a 1% share. Forbes’ last estimate valued the Suns at $1.5 billion. That’d put Fitzgerald’s minimum buy-in at $15 million.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he got in cheaper, though. Widely panned Suns owner Robert Sarver can boost his image by aligning himself with the well-liked football player. Having a local sports hero involved can also help with things like getting taxpayers to fund arena upgrades.

Three things to expect in Zion Williamson’s debut

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Finally.

At Summer League in Las Vegas, the Thomas and Mack was full but fans got just nine minutes of Zion Williamson, one half of basketball, before he was shut down following a knee-to-knee collision with another player. Zion was done for the summer as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Preseason saw Williamson get into four games and start to look like the force of nature that he was at Duke, the franchise-changing player who was the runaway consensus No. 1 pick, and he averaged 23.3 points per game on 68.8 percent shooting. Then Williamson tore his right lateral meniscus, needed surgery, and ultimately was out far longer than the original 6-8 week projections as the Pelicans were overly cautious.

Wednesday night, Williamson finally makes his NBA debut, lacing up his Nikes against San Antonio at home in New Orleans.

What should we expect in Zion’s debut (with him likely on a minutes limit)? Here are three things to watch for.

1) Dunks. A lot of dunks.

Zion Williamson is an incredibly gifted athlete but right now his game is not filled with subtlety and craft — the manchild attacks the rim and finishes. With authority.

Look at Williamson’s shot chart from the preseason: He took just four shots outside the paint.

This is not a knock on Williamson’s game — the dunk is the most efficient shot on the court, f you can get it, take it. Williamson has skills — a crossover he uses in transition, an inside-out dribble, and more — that he uses to get to the rim, and he wants to finish every play the same way.

Which is exactly what the Pelicans need.

New Orleans has good shot creators — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram — and they have shooters such as J.J. Redick. What New Orleans could use is a threat that goes to the rim and forces defenses to collapse a little, opening up space (Derrick Favors has provided some of that). The Pelicans could use a player who can draw fouls and attacks the rim. That’s Zion. He should fit in beautifully on offense.

One scout I talked to (and he wasn’t the only person to make this comparison) said Williamson’s early career could resemble Blake Griffin’s in this sense: When he entered the league, Griffin was a high-flying dunking sensation who got his points at the rim, but eventually he developed an outside shot and a passing game that made him a much more rounded, All-NBA level player. Williamson has work to do on his other skills, but the man is going to dunk the ball in his debut.

2) The start of a playoff push in New Orleans.

Williamson’s injury was not the only one that hit the Pelicans: Derrick Favors, E’Twaun Moore, Jrue Holiday, and Lonzo Ball have all missed significant chunks of time. Combine all of that with a newly formed roster, and the Pelicans got off to a dreadful start.

However, the rest of the bottom half of the West was equally dreadful. The result is that while New Orleans is just 17-27, Williamson’s return finds the Pelicans only 3.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the West. What’s more, the Pelicans have hit a groove going 11-5 in their last 16 with Ingram playing at an All-Star level to lead the offense and Favors providing a defensive anchor. Ball is starting to find a comfort zone in Alvin Gentry’s offense, which is allowing Holiday to work more at his natural two-guard spot.

Now enter Williamson and the Pelicans are thinking playoff push — they have pulled back on trade talks to see how things shake out over the next couple of weeks.

One other thing in its favor: New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the Western Conference (only Atlanta is easier overall). Only one team New Orleans faces in its final 15 has a winning record — that’s a schedule set up for a closing kick.

With Zion back in the fold, the Pelicans are going to make a run at it.

3) How well do Zion and Brandon Ingram mesh?

This is the $168 million question for the Pelicans.

(It’s less expectation than a question, one that could be a five-year $202 million question if Ingram can play his way onto an All-NBA team this season, which may not be likely but certainly is possible.)

Ingram has played his way into that size max contract this summer and if the Pelicans don’t give it to him another team will (the most another team could offer is four-years, $125 million). David Griffin has talked about keeping Ingram, the team is expected to back up the Brinks truck for him, but that doesn’t change the question:

Can Ingram and Zion coexist on the court?

Before the season — and still in a lot of minds — there are doubts about how well the games of the slashing, attacking Ingram and Williamson would fit together. Could this be another version of the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid concerns in Philly, where two elite players want to operate in the same space and it clogs things up?

Ingram has developed a reliable jump shot this season — 39.9 percent from three on 6.2 attempts per game — and that has opened up his game. It also means he should fit better next to Williamson. However, the Pelicans likely want to see how all this works before they pay Ingram all that money this summer.

Williamson and Ingram may become the cornerstones of an outstanding New Orleans team in the future, but the questions about fit will linger until the players answer them. Those are not questions that are going to be answered in Williamson’s debut, but it’s something to watch.