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Three Things to Know: Joel Embiid in middle of everything leading Sixers past Celtics

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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 in middle of everything leading Sixers past Celtics. Bench play? Philadelphia don’t need no stinkin’ bench play.

When GM Elton Brand made the mid-season trades to bring in Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, he sacrificed depth to create the best starting five in the East: Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Butler, Harris, and Joel Embiid. For one night at least, it worked the way Brand envisioned it — the Sixers starters scored 110 of the teams’ 118 points, were +11 on the night, and propelled the Philadelphia to a confidence-boosting win over Boston, 118-115.

Joel Embiid was the instigator in the middle of it all. Before and after the game.

It’s not just the 37 points and 22 rebounds, although the Sixers don’t win without that performance. Embiid also was the guy who elbowed Marcus Smart on a screen — then Smart lost his cool, wildly overreacted in shoving Embiid to the floor, which earned Smart an ejection (and a fine in the next 48 hours).

Boston was never the same after that.

Embiid scored the next eight points after the ejection, and the fired-up big man was a force the rest of the way. Embiid bullied his way inside — determined to show he can score on Al Horford — and in doing so led an attacking style that got Philly to the free throw line 46 times in the game. Also late in the game, Boston ran plays to get Kyrie Irving switched onto Embiid and both times Embiid got the stop, including one impressive recovery and block.

Then in the final minutes, the Sixers turned the keys over the Jimmy Butler — he had two critical threes, then a dagger jumper along the baseline followed by a meme-worthy celebration.

After the game, Embiid stayed the center of attention with this interview where he said he was the most unstoppable player in the NBA (somewhere James Harden’s eyebrows raised).

If you’re a Sixers fan, there were certainly things to like out of this win, particularly down the stretch. They now have a matchup that works against Boston — they went right at Kyrie Irving’s defense and bullied him inside, then shot over him. Having Smart on the court would help Boston, but it doesn’t completely solve that problem. With this Sixers starting five, there is no place to hide Irving.

(Not that a meeting of these teams in the playoffs is any kind of lock, the Sixers are looking like the three seed, Boston will be four or five, meaning if they meet it will be the Eastern Conference Finals. And if that happens both teams will have evolved since this game.)

That said, there are Sixers questions still, specifically can they lean on the starters like this in the playoffs (Simmons played 42 minutes, Embiid 41)? There are no back-to-backs and more rest is built in, but it’s still asking a lot and at points Philly is going to need something from its bench. With staggered minutes for the starters the weaknesses can be hidden better in the postseason, but the bench still needs to step up. It’s a puzzle for Brett Brown to put together.

What we know now is this: These starters make the 76ers a threat and can take them a long way in the playoffs.

2) James Harden drops 57, Rockets still lose in overtime to the Grizzlies. Interesting stat of the night: James Harden has seven 50+ point games this season, but the Rockets are 4-3 in those games.

The one-man Harden show was back and it carried the Rockets again — he scored 28 of his 57 points on the night in the fourth quarter and overtime, and had 15 during a 17-2 Rockets late run. That included three free throws to tie the game and force OT after a ridiculously bad foul by Justin Holiday. The kind of foul that will give J.B. Bickerstaff an ulcer.

However, the Grizzlies are scrappy, and as an organization they are trying to win — they have to give a pick to Boston one of the next three years, they would rather do it this season. The pick is top 8 protected this draft, and currently Memphis has the seventh worst record in the league. If the standings do not change Memphis has a 14.2 percent chance of giving up the pick, but make up the 1.5 games it is behind Washington and that jumps to nearly 40 percent. Memphis wants to win games.

Jonas Valanciunas got the memo and helped them do that. He grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled with 0.1 left in overtime, sinking the game-winning free throw (he finished with a career-high 33 points).

Houston remains the three seed, but they are just half-a-game up on four seed Portland. Houston needs some more wins to make sure they don’t slide down the standings (and into the Warriors side of the bracket).

3) Toronto beats slumping Oklahoma City in overtime. It was the night Oklahoma City celebrated Nick Collison, retiring the jersey the ultimate glue guy who put the franchise first.

The Thunder could use a guy like that right now.

Since the All-Star break, the Thunder are now 5-10 with the worst offense in the NBA over that stretch (104.6 offensive net rating). That was on display Wednesday in a loss to Toronto, where the Thunder had a 100.9 offensive rating.

Toronto led most of the way and was in control, complete with Kawhi Leonard seeming annoyed by Paul George‘s defense.

At home in OKC you knew it was coming — Thunder made a run and ultimately tied the game with 4.8 seconds to go on a driving Russell Westbrook layup.

It forced overtime, but there Paul George fouled out, the Raptors scored nine in a row, and that was the ballgame.

With the loss, the Thunder fell into a three-way tie with the Spurs and Clippers for the 6/7/8 seeds in the West, with OKC technically being the eight seed based on tiebreakers. That would mean Golden State in the first round, the worst possible outcome for Oklahoma City. There are 10 games left in the Thunder season and they need to find wins fast or it could be a quick postseason for a team that just a couple of months ago was talked about as potentially the second best team out West.

Andrew Bogut appears to take shot at LeBron on Twitter

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The NBA wants it to, and it will eventually fade some (only to flare up again later), but the NBA/China relationship issue is not going away.

The latest spark comes from across the ocean, down in Australia, where former Warrior (and Buck and a couple other teams in the middle) Andrew Bogut takes what is a pretty clear a dig at LeBron James over the China issue.

Let me explain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters just before the NBA was about to send the Lakers and Nets were about to head to China for a couple of exhibition games. China flexed its muscle to punish the NBA for touching a third-rail issue by having corporate sponsors pause their involvement with the league and preseason games were not shown in China. Adam Silver issued a milquetoast statement that seemed aimed to appease China, and when a backlash from the United States — still by far the largest NBA market — came swiftly Silver adjusted his position and came out more backing Morey’s right to free speech.

After all that, once back in the states, LeBron vented about the situation, saying Morey wasn’t “educated” on the topic, and seeming frustrated because the Tweet put the players in China on the front lines of an international trade dispute — remember, there is a trade war and tariffs. However, LeBron’s meandering comments came off as being more concerned about money than free speech. LeBron said he was saying Morey didn’t think through the consequences of his Tweet (true) and that he doesn’t have to take a public stand on every issue (also true) but it all came off as LeBron prioritizing protecting his brand,

Which leads to a lot of criticism. Some a lot more direct than what Andrew Bogut said.

Report: Grizzlies, Bulls have conversations with Iman Shumpert

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Iman Shumpert is just 29 years old, which seems crazy because it wasn’t that long ago he was making the All-Rookie team in New York or winning a title with LeBron James.

The point is he’s still young, was on the court for the Rockets during the postseason last year, and is the best free agent available. He turned down a contract offer from the Rockets before the preseason (which may have been incentive heavy, like Nene’s) and remains on the market.

Some team is going to snap him up. That team could end up being the Memphis. Or, maybe Chicago. That according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Free-agent guard Iman Shumpert has had conversations with teams, including Memphis and Chicago, league sources said. Shumpert, an eight-year NBA veteran, is one of the best players remaining on the market.

Chicago has Zach LaVine and Otto Porter starting on the wing, but they may want more veteran depth behind them. Memphis has the combination of Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen at the two, they may want to add some veteran depth to that mix.

At this point, teams are just starting to accurately assess where they are and where they need help — players they thought would step up didn’t, or there are injuries creating gaps — and that will continue into the first weeks of the season. As that happens, a few of the veterans on the sideline will get picked up (no, probably not Carmelo Anthony, that’s another topic).

Shumpert should be at the front of that line. He’s already got interest.

 

Pacers reportedly testing trade market for Domantas Sabonis

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Two factors are in play here.

First, the Pacers and Domantas Sabonis‘ representatives are reportedly nowhere near an agreement on a contract extension.

Second, there are real questions about how Sabonis and Pacers’ center Myles Turner can play together. If they can’t, then the question becomes how much do the Pacers want to pay Sabonis to be a backup five (because Turner is the better player and a guy they can build their defense around).

That has led to the Pacers exploring possible Sabonis trades, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

…sources say the Pacers have engaged in active trade talks with several teams this week about the fourth-year forward. Sabonis, the 23-year-old who arrived with Victor Oladipo in late June 2017 in the Paul George trade with Oklahoma City, is clearly on the market.

There is no lack of interest in Sabonis, who averaged 14.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists last season as the Pacers — who lost Oladipo to a season-ending ruptured quad injury in a game against Toronto on Jan. 23 — pulled off such a surprising campaign (48-34; lost in the first round to Boston). Thus far, sources say the Pacers’ asking price in talks with several teams has been too high.

Sabonis is a skilled offensive big man who is versatile. That makes him a fantastic pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off guy who can help create space for the ball handler to find a lane, then he rolls into open space. He’s strong around the basket and plays a crafty, high IQ game. He can help a lot of teams. However, two things limit Sabonis: He is not good defensively and he does not space the floor (76.4 percent of his shots came within 10 feet of the basket last season, and he doesn’t make many beyond that range).

Sabonis is in the final year of his rookie contract and has a healthy pay raise coming next season, up from the $3.5 million he will make this time around. The Pacers, however, just forked out big cash for Myles Turner (four-years, $72 million) and Malcolm Brogdon (four years, $85 million). They may be a little gun shy about doing that now for Sabonis, and there are other teams interested. That doesn’t even count Victor Oladipo’s payday. All this for a team not likely to venture into the luxury tax.

How much the Pacers can get for Sabonis remains to be seen, but the Pacers may want picks because not much salary needs to be exchanged. Of course right now the Pacers are asking for everything but the GM’s firstborn son from other teams, and of course the other teams are lowballing the Pacers with their first offers. That’s how negotiations work. When things start to evolve to a middle ground, the Pacers may well find a deal because, as much as they like him, it’s hard to make everything fit with Sabonis on the team.

Draymond Green says teams deserve blame for draft picks not developing, Marquese Chriss agrees

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Marquese Chriss was a No. 8 pick in the NBA draft who has yet to pan out. He showed a little promise as a rookie in Phoenix, but by Summer League the next July issues already seemed to pop up. His shooting percentages dropped, mostly because of questionable shot selection — every season he has taken more threes and made a lower percentage (22.2 percent last season). He wasn’t strong on defense. He looked like a player who might not be long for the NBA.

Now he’s going to make the Warriors roster. Maybe injuries to other frontcourt players — Willie Cauley-Stein, rookie Alen Smailagic, and Kevon Looney are — made keeping the 6’10” forward a smart move, but Chriss’ play in the preseason helped earn him that spot.

After a preseason game against the Lakers Wednesday, Draymond Green stuck up for Chriss, saying it may be less about the player and more about the organization. Via NBC Sports Bay Area’s Monte Poole.

“He’s been in some pretty tough situations,” Green told reporters… “No one ever blames the situation, though. It’s always the kid. No one ever blames these s***y franchises. They always want to blame the kid. It’s not always the kid’s fault.

“He’s getting older now, so he’s not a kid anymore. But he came into this league as a kid. But it’s never the organization’s fault. It’s always that guy. So I’m happy he’s got another opportunity to show what he can really do. Because he’s a prime example.”

Chriss was grateful for what Green said, as reported by Logan Murdock of NBC Sports Bay Area.

“I appreciate him for having my back and I wholeheartedly believe what he said,” Chriss said. “Being a person to go through things like that. Having a lot of blame on you for stuff you can’t really control is tough and its growing pains with being in the NBA. I feel like it takes time to develop and learn.

“It bothers me when people try to come for my character,” he added. “I know what type of person I am and I know how my mom raised me and I know how I want to represent myself and my family so that’s the biggest thing for me is just showing that things that have been said are not true.”

Jared Dudley, who was with Chriss in Phoenix, said that it was a combination of an immature Chriss but also a Suns organization that did not create a good environment to develop players.

“He was immature,” former teammate Jared Dudley told NBC Sports Bay Area Friday afternoon. “But it’s not a bad immaturity, he just had to grow up and they threw him into the fire and sometimes kids aren’t ready for that…

“At the time Phoenix didn’t have the infrastructure to manage and control people and to develop people at that time,” Dudley added. “Three coaches in his year and a half. He was partially to blame, he was getting technical fouls, he was shooting bad shots but sometimes it’s on the organization and they failed him.”

The Warriors have a strong development program for young players, and a strong culture, on that Chriss seems to be thriving in.

Injuries helped open the door for Chriss in Golden State, but to his credit he has pushed it open wide with his play and it would not have been easy for the Warriors to let him go. He’s attacking the rim and scoring 9.5 points per game on 60.9 percent shooting (he’s still struggling from three, 20 percent, but he’s only taking 22 percent of his shots from there, down from nearly half last season). Chriss also has been a beast on the boards, grabbing 8.3 rebounds a game.

That’s impressive, but it’s also the preseason. If he can do it when things get serious starting next week, Chriss will have the redemption he wanted.