Associated Press

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.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse leaves mouth agape a loooong time after odd call (video)

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The Raptors got called for an extremely quick three-second violation during their Game 4 win over the Magic yesterday.

Toronto coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe it.

Really couldn’t believe it.

Just couldn’t believe it one bit.

Bucks on brink of first playoff series win in 18 years

Associated Press
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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Milwaukee Bucks can wipe away 18 years of frustration on Monday night.

They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2000-01 season, when they reached the Eastern Conference finals. That drought can end in Detroit if they complete a sweep of the Pistons.

The top-seeded Milwaukee cruised through the first three games, winning by an average of 24 points. If they lose in Game 4, the Bucks would have three more chances in the best-of-seven series to end their streak of eight straight first-round exits. The earlier the Bucks eliminate eighth-seeded Detroit, the more time they’ll have to prepare for the conference semifinals.

“It’s going to be nice if we can finish it here and get six days of rest,” superstar forward Giannis Antetokounmpo said.

In Game 3 on Saturday, Antetokounmpo had a quiet night and the Bucks still led by double digits most of the way. Antetokounmpo finished with 14 points, three assists and four turnovers and only played 27 minutes due to foul trouble. The Pistons couldn’t take advantage of his off night, though, as Milwaukee had six other players in double figures in its 119-103 victory.

“It’s good to see my team doing really well out there without me,” he said. “It means a lot to me. There’s going to be nights like this. My teammates did a great job of picking me up.”

The Bucks were up 13 points when Antetokounmpo sat early in the third quarter after getting whistled for his fourth foul. When he re-entered late in the quarter, they were leading by 22 points.

“It’s something we’ve been trying to build all year,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We’re a team that plays together, tries to take what the defense gives us. Guys have a lot of confidence to make plays. It’s not just all about Giannis, as amazing and great as he is. If and when we need more from other people, it’s a credit to Giannis to let his teammates carry him some nights, carry him some stretches.”

The Bucks will try match their regular-season feat against the Pistons. Their four-game sweep was the first by either team in the all-time series. They have met in the postseason four other times, with Detroit winning each time.

“We might be the number one seed and best team in the NBA (record-wise) but at the end of the day, we haven’t won a playoff series in a while,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re hungry, everybody’s hungry.”

The Pistons’ best player, power forward Blake Griffin, made his debut in the series after sitting out the first two games with a sore left knee. Griffin toughed it out for 31 minutes and posted 27 points, seven rebounds and six assists. His teammates let him down, as Detroit shot below 40 percent for the third straight game.

“That young man is giving us everything he has,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He said he was feeling good. I was concerned about his conditioning with as much time as he’s missed. You can’t really simulate 5-on-5 basketball when you’re rehabbing. But he came in and gave us what he could. He just has a presence that we can’t replicate.”

The Pistons haven’t shown enough of a defensive presence against a team that averaged a league-high 118.1 points.

“We had some situations where we make a mistake or miss a shot, now we go down to the defensive end and don’t carry out our assignments,” Casey said. “That’s part of growth. That’s a team that makes you pay for mistakes that you make.”

Playoff Edition Three Things to Know: Not just Lillard, CJ McCollum outplaying OKC, too

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The NBA playoffs are in full swing and there can be a lot to unpack in a series of intense games, to help out we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) It’s not a one-man show, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum outplaying Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Coming into the series, both Portland and Oklahoma City faced a question: Could their stars help overcome weakness with their depth and support players. Through four games, one team’s stars are outplaying their counterparts.

That played out again on Sunday: Russell Westbrook was 0-of-7 shooting in the second half, 5-of-21 for the game, finishing with 14 points. Paul George was 8-of-21 shooting but at least was getting to the free throw line on his way to 32 points. Meanwhile, Damian Lillard had 15 points in the third quarter alone when Portland started to pull away, CJ McCollum hit some critical threes in the fourth (he was 5-of-9 from three for the game) to help the Trail Blazers stay ahead on his way to 27 points.

Portland went into OKC and won 111-98, taking a commanding 3-1 lead heading home for Game 5.

After the game, Jusuf Nurkic (sidelined with a leg injury) couldn’t resist taking a little shot at Westbrook and his postgame antics.

A lot of the attention this series has gone to the heads-up matchup of Westbrook vs. Lillard duel — and with good reason, it’s been bad blood and entertaining. However, that has left McCollum in the shadows and he deserves some spotlight for averaging 26.3 points, shooting 51.6 percent from three, plus having 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game against the Thunder through four. Oklahoma City has not had an answer for him.

Oklahoma City has had to play a lot of Dennis Schroder this series because he’s been efficient on offense (17 points on 6-of-12 shooting Sunday) but either Lillard or McCollum can just take him in isolation whenever they want and get buckets. It also helps Portland when Al-Farouq Aminu is giving them 19 points, as he did Sunday.

The big picture lesson in this series: Shooting matters. Oklahoma City’s stars are not finishing well enough inside, settling for more midrangers than they should, and unless it’s from the right corner the Thunder struggle from three. You’re not going to win a lot of games with the shot chart the Thunder had on Sunday.

2) Boston sweeps past Indiana to advance, East races shaping up as expected. The playoffs in the East are going to be a dynamic show, but we knew that was really going to start in the second round. One could make a case for Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston to come out of the conference, but after those four there was a talent drop off. There was the first round to get through before the real fireworks began.

Boston advanced Sunday with a sweep of the Pacers, winning 110-106 behind 20 points from Gordon Hayward, who had himself a night.

Frankly, this series was decided back in January when Victor Oladipo went down with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon. Without him the Pacers — who played hard and smart in his absence, and were brilliantly coached by Nate McMillan — just did not have the firepower to score enough to make this series interesting.

Also in the East on Sunday, Toronto overwhelmed Orlando 107-85 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead as things head back north of the border for Game 5. That loss by the Magic all but sealed this series, which might have been a sweep if not for the rider in every Toronto player contract that they have to stink in the first game of every playoff series.

Milwaukee likely sweeps Detroit out of the playoffs on Monday night, setting up their showdown with Boston in the second round. Brooklyn has put up a fight against Philadelphia — down to their GM breaking NBA taboos and going into the referees’ locker room to discuss how they officiate Joel Embiid — but with the Sixers up 3-1 and having game 5 at home Tuesday, this series also feels inevitable.

Then we can get on to the main course in the East.

3) Klay Thompson goes for a swim, comes out of the ocean and destroys the Clippers, Warriors go up 3-1. Klay Thompson hadn’t played poorly through the first three games of the Warriors’ first-round playoff series with the Clippers, he’d played impressive defense and averaged 13.7 points on 44.4 percent shooting. But he hadn’t had a breakout game, the kind we expect from one of the game’s best shooters.

So he went for a swim (via NBC Sports Bay Area and Monte Poole).

“I told Jonas [Jerebko] yesterday when we went to the beach to play some volleyball, like, ‘Yo, I’m just going to jump in the ocean. I know that will reset my mind.’ And it worked.”

Sunday Thompson had 27 points in the first half, going on to finish with 32 on 12-of-20 shooting (6-of-9 from three). The Warriors won 113-105 to take a 3-1 series lead heading back to the Bay Area for Game 5.

“The Pacific Ocean is undefeated,” said Stephen Curry after the game (he struggled with 12 points on 14 shots, the Clippers have defended him well this series).

Golden State has a showdown with Houston coming. With all due respect to the other teams still in the dance in the West, that is your Western Conference Finals, it’s just taking place in the second round. Houston has dominated Utah and can sweep them out of the playoffs Monday night.

Houston is playing its best basketball of the season, it is defending at a high level, and the Rockets have a shot against the Warriors. They believe they can win, but we’ll find out starting next weekend (most likely, dates for the second round are not public yet).

Road, sweet road! NBA away teams go 8-0 over weekend

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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) Road, sweet road.

There were eight NBA playoff games this weekend, and all eight were won by the road team. It’s the first time in NBA history there were eight road playoff wins in a two-day span.

“Road wins are the best, especially in the playoffs,” Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard said.

The Raptors were one of the eight road winners this weekend, prevailing at Orlando on Sunday. Other Sunday road winners included Boston over Indiana, Golden State over the Los Angeles Clippers and Portland over Oklahoma City.

On Saturday, it was Philadelphia over Brooklyn, Denver over San Antonio, Houston over Utah and Milwaukee over Detroit.

Through 30 games of this year’s playoffs, road teams are 16-14. Home teams went 3-0 on Wednesday, and went 2-12 in the four days that followed. Since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984, there has never been a first round where road teams won more than home teams.

Home teams won 71 percent of playoff games last season, the NBA’s highest such clip since 2008.