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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.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.