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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.

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

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Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.

Atlanta G League affiliate promotes Tori Miller, first female GM in league

Tori Miller
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The Atlanta Hawks aren’t just talking about progress and giving Black women a chance. They are acting.

The College Park Skyhawks, Atlanta’s G-League affiliate, has promoted Tori Miller to general manager. She is the first female GM in the G-League.

Miller, who grew up in Decatur (a city next to Atlanta), had worked for the team in Erie (when they were the Bayhawks) and followed the team with its move closer to its parent franchise. Miller served as an assistant GM last season before being promoted.

G League front office positions can be a stepping stone into an NBA front office.

The Hawks progressive move comes just as the team’s WNBA franchise, the Dream, has players trying to oust co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican Georgia U.S. Senator, because she advocated against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler has said she will not sell. It’s a problem not going away anytime soon.