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Three Things to Know: Philadelphia zones out against Miami in loss

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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) Philadelphia zones out against Miami, Heat snap Sixers home winning streak. Brett Brown has done the self-scouting on his Sixers team, he knew this day was coming. Think about the Sixers’ biggest offensive strengths — Joel Embiid in the post, the slashing game of Ben Simmons getting to the rim — and the strategy becomes obvious and logical:

Play a zone defense.

A packed-in 2/3 zone that makes it hard to get Embiid the ball in the post and takes away Simmons’ driving lanes. Dare the Sixers to shoot over the top of the zone and beat it. Other teams had tried this for a few possessions here and there against Philadelphia this season, but nothing steady.

Miami has been more of a zone team than most already this season. They have the length and athleticism to make a zone work at the NBA level, so long as the other team can’t shoot well from distance.

Starting in the second quarter Wednesday night, Miami broke out its zone, and Philadelphia struggled. A lot. Philadelphia’s offense had flowed in the first quarter (with their defense creating transition chances), but it slowed and became clunky. At the heart of the issue was the Sixers couldn’t shoot over the top of the zone and make the Heat pay — Mike Scott was 1-of-6 from three, Josh Richardson 3-of-10, Joel Embiid 1-of-5, and as a team the Sixers shot just 30.8% from deep.

The Sixers then let their offensive struggles impact their defense. In the words of Tobias Harris, the Sixers became “zombies.” Miami went on a 23-5 run to take the lead, stretched that out to as much as 16, then held on at the end to win 108-104. That gave Philadelphia its first home loss of the season after 14 wins.

Miami’s zone cut off a Sixers strength — Embiid post-ups — and exposed a weakness of reliable long-range shooters. The Sixers started to adapt by moving Embiid more to the high post, with some success (and they could have even more long term by getting Al Horford or Ben Simmons the ball at the nail and letting them initiate the offense) but it was too little, too late.

Philly has been good this season against the league’s best — even with this loss it is 6-3 against the team with the 10 top records in the league — but their weaknesses can be glaring at times. It’s a concern when looking ahead to potential playoff matchups.

Games like this — with Bam Adebayo going off for 23, Kendrick Nunn 26, and Jimmy Butler being the closer when needed — make it clear Miami is going to be a very tough playoff matchup. Miami is the team other top teams would like to avoid come the postseason, the Heat will be a very tough out (and a real upset threat).

2) Oklahoma City comes back from 20+ points down to win for the second straight game. Some teams play better with their backs against the wall. Oklahoma City appears to be one of those teams.

Monday night, the Thunder stormed from 26 down against Chicago — with Chris Paul taking over late — to get a 109-106 win.

Wednesday night, the Thunder got down 24 to the Grizzlies but stormed back behind 22 second-half points off the bench by Dennis Schroder to get a 126-122 win.

That’s not a sustainable way to keep picking up wins, but they count just the same.

Phoenix may want to plan for how to handle the OKC guards if the Suns race out to a lead Friday night.

3) Two reasons the Knicks hiring David Blatt should concern Knicks fans. Steve Mills played basketball at Princeton, and there he was teammates with Craig Robinson and David Blatt. All three played under legendary Princeton coach Pete Carril, and all three went on to careers in basketball.

Mills is the president of the Knicks basketball operations and — hot seat or no — he still has power. He had already hired Robinson, and on Wednesday he hired Blatt — the former Cleveland Cavaliers coach — as a consultant.

In a vacuum, this move is fine. Blatt knows basketball, he may not have the personality and temperament to coach NBA players, but he has a long track record of success in Europe and he understands the game. Adding another smart voice to the front office mix is generally a good thing.

Two key things should concern Knicks fans with this hire. (And that assumes that Blatt never comes down from the front office to coach this team, or it would be three things to be concerned about.)

First, this is a very insular hire, when what the Knicks need is someone outside the box. One of the issues with Mills is that he was the guy with the power before Phil Jackson and the one with the hammer after Jackson left — the Knicks never shook things up. It was always insular, comfortable, safe moves. Mills, as president, just hired a guy he knows well and comes from the same coaching tree. It’s a move that backs the status quo, and is this status quo where the Knicks want to be?

Second, this hire shows Mills still has juice in the organization and may be around a while. For all the talk of Mills being on the hot seat and a fascination in the front office with Masai Ujiri (or other high-level replacement), this not a move ownership okays if the plan is to show Mills the door anytime soon. Even if the plan is to get a new POBO this summer, is this a hire ownership signs off on.

It’s the kind of move that makes it feel like Mills (and GM Scott Perry) are going to be around a while. A long while. Things change fast in Madison Square Garden, but for now the winds of change are not sweeping through the building.

Watch Damian Lillard put up 51 on shorthanded 76ers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Everything is back to normal for Damian Lillard.

The All-Star point guard scored 51 points after a frustrating finish a night earlier, and the Portland Trail Blazers beat the Philadelphia 76ers 124-121 on Sunday.

On Saturday against the Los Angeles Clippers, Lillard missed a pair of free throws with 18.6 seconds to go and a 3-pointer with 9.5 seconds left in a 122-117 loss. Clippers players Paul George and Patrick Beverley were seen laughing at Lillard’s misfortune.

Lillard got the last laugh Sunday by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter.

“It wasn’t really so much my performance yesterday and I wanted to perform a certain way today,” he said. “It was like, we let one slip that we should have had yesterday, and I’m a big part of why it got away from us. So tonight, I was like ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Portland bounced back and pulled within a half-game of Memphis for eighth place in the Western Conference. The Trail Blazers increased their chances of qualifying for the play-in series, which will start Saturday.

The 76ers lost much more than the game. All-Star center Joel Embiid left in the first quarter with what the team called a left ankle injury, and he did not return. He contested a shot, then backed up and stepped awkwardly into the stanchion. He had been averaging 30 points per game since the restart.

76ers coach Brett Brown wouldn’t say whether Embiid would miss time.

“I’m going to learn more physically,” Brown said. “I don’t know enough to comment on it.”

It was more bad injury news for the 76ers. All-Star point guard Ben Simmons is out indefinitely with an injured left knee.

Josh Richardson scored a season-high 34 points and Alec Burks added 20 for Philadelphia. The 76ers would have moved into a tie with the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat for fourth place in the Eastern Conference standings with a win.

Without their stars, the 76ers fell behind by 17 in the second quarter and trailed 67-58 at halftime.

The game tightened up late. Philadelphia’s Al Horford hit a 3-pointer to trim Portland’s lead to 122-121. Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic made two free throws with 10.2 seconds remaining to put his team up three. Richardson missed a 3-pointer for Philadelphia, and the 76ers couldn’t get another shot off after a scramble for the rebound.

“I thought our guys fought,” Brown said. “I really thought the spirit of the group was fantastic. We called upon many different players that I think played with a spirit and a passion that you’re proud of.”

Zion Williamson, New Orleans eliminated from playoff chase; Kings, too

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There was no team hyped like the New Orleans Pelicans heading into the NBA’s restart in Orlando. They had Zion Williamson healthy (or so they thought), and they had been playing the best of any of the teams in the playoff chase just before the coronavirus shut the league (and nation) down. A basketball-starved nation dreamed of a LeBron James vs. Zion showdown in the first round.

The reality of the bubble was not so kind to those dreams or New Orleans.

The Pelicans lost to the Spurs on Sunday, 122-113, despite 25 points from Williamson. Combined with the Trail Blazers beating the 76ers 124-121, the Pelicans became mathematically eliminated from reaching the nine seed and getting into a play-in series in the West.

The Pelicans are out of the playoffs. New Orleans will go through the motions of two more games in the bubble, but don’t be surprised if key players rest. The Pelicans went 2-4 in the bubble with offensive struggles holding the team back.

The Sacramento Kings also have been eliminated, extending the franchise’s playoff drought to 14 years. The last time the Kings were in the playoffs was 2006.

The Memphis Grizzlies sit as the eighth seed in the West, with Portland the ninth seed and just half-a-game back. San Antonio (one game back of Memphis) and Phoenix (1.5 games back) are both alive in the playoff chase still.

New Orleans getting eliminated ends J.J. Redick‘s playoff streak at 13 seasons, the longest of any active player and tied for seventh-longest all-time (the record is a tie at 19 between Karl Malone and John Stockton, who did it together). Getting eliminated is what leads to a 1000-mile stare meme.

 

 

 

 

Joel Embiid will not return to 76ers game due to left ankle injury

Joel Embiid injury
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Philadelphia’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bubble continues.

Joel Embiid went back to the locker room during the first quarter of the 76ers game against the Trail Blazers and will not return to the court due to a left ankle injury, the team announced, via Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

There are no other details yet on Embiid’s condition. He has been far-and-away the best player on a Philadelphia team that has struggled through the NBA’s restart in Orlando.

The 76ers have already lost Ben Simmons, likely for the rest of this season, due to knee surgery.

Despite the injuries and rough play, Philly was 3-1 entering Sunday. However, the one loss was to red-hot T.J. Warren and Indiana, which essentially locked the 76ers into the six seed (and a likely first-round meeting with Boston).

Embiid is averaging 30 points a game in Orlando and put up a ridiculous 41 points, 21 rebounds line against Indiana.

If Embiid misses much time, the Sixers’ chances against any team near the top of the East are slim. At best.

Play-in series guaranteed in West after Toronto beats Memphis

NBA play-in
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — It’s now official: There will be a play-in series to determine the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Memphis’ 108-99 loss to Toronto on Sunday means that it’s no longer possible for more than a four-game difference in the standings between the eighth- and ninth-place finishers in the West when the seeding game schedule ends later this week.

By the rules the NBA set for this season’s restart, there had to be more than a four-game cushion for the No. 8 team to get the final playoff spot outright. The league decided to add the play-in series option in an abundance of fairness, since about 14% of the regular season schedule was eliminated because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Memphis remains alone in eighth place, even after Sunday’s loss. Portland is one game behind and is in the nine seed (with a Philadelphia Sunday night). San Antonio (who beat New Orleans Sunday) and red-hot Phoenix are 1.5 games back of the Grizzlies. New Orleans is now two games back and with a difficult road to the postseason.

No team has clinched a spot in the play-in series; the Grizzlies could have assured themselves of no worse than that had they beaten the Raptors on Sunday.

Game 1 of the play-in series will be Saturday, with Game 2 — if necessary — the following day, Aug. 16. To advance and face the top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, the eighth-place team will have to win one of the two games and the ninth-place finisher would have to go 2-0.

ABC will air Game 1 of the play-in series on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Game 2, if necessary, would be Aug. 16 at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN.

There will be no play-in series in the Eastern Conference; Brooklyn and Orlando have secured what were the last two available spots on that bracket, with Washington — the only other team that came to Disney with a chance of qualifying in the East — already eliminated.

The playoffs begin Monday, Aug. 17.

“Obviously, that’s what everybody’s goal is,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said Sunday.

The matchup for the play-in will be known no later than Thursday. There are four seeding games on Friday, the last day of the regular season, though none of them will have any bearing on the West matchup.