The NBA season is in full swing, and we will be here each weekday with the NBC Sports daily roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed in the Association, every key moment from the night before in one place.
1) Joel Embiid makes his MVP case with 40 points against Jazz
LeBron James is mid-season MVP frontrunner: He has the narrative that carried over from last playoffs, he has the “best player on the planet” tag, and he certainly has impressive statistics and leads a Lakers team that is the bar every other team has to clear to be considered a contender (a team that has stumbled of late without Anthony Davis, but that doesn’t tarnish LeBron much).
Joel Embiid has been better this season.
The 76ers big man made his MVP case on national television Wednesday night, going right at the mid-season Defensive Player of the Year leader (and two-time winner before) Rudy Gobert and putting up 40 points, grabbing 19 rebounds, playing strong defense, hitting the three that forced overtime, and generally looking dominant in a 76ers overtime win over the Jazz, 131-123.
JOEL EMBIID ARE YOU KIDDING LASKDJSDSLKASD pic.twitter.com/sMYmrvDHNi
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) March 4, 2021
In a battle of the No. 1 seeds in each conference, Philadelphia won because it had the best player on the floor — Embiid. That is the definition of an MVP statement.
Embiid has better statistics across the board than LeBron: more points per game (30.2), more rebounds (11.6 per game), and the advanced stats love Embiid, who has a higher true shooting percentage, higher usage rate, better PER, more win shares and better win shares per 48 minutes (and we could go on and on, but you get the point). LeBron’s role with the Lakers is different, he is asked to do far more playmaking for everyone in a point guard role (and he has far more assists to match that), but raw numbers favor Embiid. LeBron’s case is more based on the narrative and where he has positioned the Lakers as the benchmark for title talk in the NBA. (Nikola Jokic has made his MVP case as well and should be in this conversation, although his defense may leave him third.)
Embiid is his best when he plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he had one Wednesday night — Gobert made third-team All-NBA as a center last season and Embiid believed he deserved that honor. Plus, Utah has been everyone’s darling the first half of the season with their ensemble play and winning streaks.
Embiid went right at Gobert at points (although Philly did a good job forcing Gobert off Embiid on switches), powering through the French big man on occasion and drawing fouls all night long (Donovan Mitchell went off on the officiating, scroll down to No. 3 of Three Things for more on that). On defense, Embiid had a couple of blocks but altered far more and showed his mobility — he showed out on Donovan Mitchell and other guards then recovered to protect the rim. He was a defensive force.
Philadelphia’s win was a reminder it is a contender at the top of the East, and it is there in large part because Embiid has found another level of his game under Doc Rivers. He is the best player on the No. 1 seed in the East — another definition of MVP.
There is half a season to go before votes are cast for this award, and to beat LeBron for MVP this season someone is going to have to be clear-and-away better because there seems to be a sentiment it’s LeBron’s turn, that he has lost out on chances in the past and deserves to be a five-time winner. That’s not wrong. LeBron James has been unquestionably great.
Embiid is just making the case he is better.
2) James Harden keeps playing like an MVP in his return to Houston
James Harden is not going to win the NBA’s most valuable player award. The entire season counts and that includes his ugly exit from Houston, where he showed up late to training camp, was out of shape, yelled at teammates and threw a ball at one, and sabotaged the Rockets’ season to force his way out. All that matters.
But since getting to Brooklyn, Harden has played like an MVP. He deserves down-ballot consideration.
He looked ever bit the MVP in his return to Houston, putting up a triple-double of 29 points (on 10-of-15 shooting, 4-of-8 from three), 10 rebounds, 13 assists, with three steals, and leading the Nets to a comfortable 132-114 win over the Rockets (that’s 13 straight losses for Houston). That’s eight triple-doubles for Harden since the trade.
Harden was greeted with a mix of boos and cheers in his return, and it felt a little like a bad breakup in Houston — fans were both mad at him for leaving and were remembering all the good times they had with him. Feelings were mixed, and that’s natural.
The game was also a reminder of how far apart these two teams are — and why Harden felt he needed out to get to a contender. The Rockets tried — John Wall had36 points and Victor Oladipo added 33, both season highs for the players — and it just didn’t matter. The Rockets miss Christian Wood so very much.
Harden is not beating out LeBron/Embiid/Jokic to win MVP, but he may be the Net who ends up in the top five of the voting. (Kevin Durant has played well enough to be in that mix, but he has missed too many games now to win it.) Harden is back to being James Harden the perennial MVP candidate, which makes Brooklyn that much tougher to stop.
3) Donovan Mitchell latest victim of soft ejection, and he sounds off
J.J. Redick was ejected for rolling the ball back to a referee too firmly. Devin Booker got two technical fouls within five seconds from different referees, removing him from the middle of an intense playoff-style midseason game.
Wednesday night, Donovan Mitchell was tossed with :35 seconds left in what became Utah’s loss to Philadelphia. After the game, a frustrated Mitchell went looking for a fine from the NBA — and he’ll get one — ranting about the Jazz not getting calls other teams do.
It’s tough to go out there and see how we fight and compete and to have a game like that taken from us. I’m never, ever wanting to blame a ref, to blame an official. I could say we could have done more. But this is getting out of hand. There have been games like this that we’ve won. There have been games like this that we’ve lost.But this whole refereeing stuff and the way – We’re nice. We don’t complain. We don’t get frustrated. We fight through things. And the fact that we just continually get screwed in a way by this.
We won this game, in my personal opinion. But, like I said, I’m going to give them credit. They won. Whatever. Cool. But this has been a consistent thing. And the question is: “Can we do it? Can we sustain it? Are we for real number one?” Yeah the hell we are, and it’s getting f***** ridiculous … that this is what’s happening.
We have the whole second half of the season to go and get ready for, but I’m sick of it. To be honest, we all are. And I think this is something that just – it eats me. It eats at me, man. You all know what is. We all know what it is. But it’s really getting out of hand. It’s really, really, really getting out of hand. And the league needs to do something about this. Because I want to see the Last Two Minute Report. I want to see it. But it’s getting out of hand.
So this was called an offensive foul on Donovan Mitchell and I give up, folks pic.twitter.com/byF2aT1kYc
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) March 4, 2021
Most of the night was like that. Mitchell hooked Simmons, there was contact both ways, and the Jazz felt they got the short end. In reality, Simmons is a good defender and Mitchell was seeking contact he couldn’t always get late.
Mitchell’s two technicals came within 30 seconds, both for what the league will describe as “abusive language toward a game official.” Mitchell got his first technical (with :58 seconds left) protesting a foul Embiid drew Gobert (there was a lot of contact on that play, but Embiid was egging the referee on to give Mitchell the technical). The next Jazz possession Mitchell felt he was fouled and didn’t get the call, and he kept talking. That got him a second technical and ejection.
Rudy Gobert did his part to get a fine as well.
Just tweeting a censored version of Gobert's statements tonight so I can embed them in the article and not get a fine from my boss pic.twitter.com/mqj0tbYZqL
— Andy Larsen (@andyblarsen) March 4, 2021
Out in Los Angeles, Montrezl Harrell got a technical for yelling “and-one” and vented about it (if yelling “and-one” becomes a technical it will happen on literally every drive all game long).
— Kyle Goon (@kylegoon) March 4, 2021
In the case of Utah, it has hit a rough patch of the season, having lost 3-of-4 on this road trip, and they were frustrated. When things are close, it’s natural to blame the officials, and that’s part of what is going on here.
That said, there have been a lot of quick ejections lately from referees — it’s an emotional game, the players need to be able to vent a little. Referees need not to take it personally (easier said than done when someone is cussing at you), not become emotional about it, and move on. Most of the time they do, but the referees seem to be pushing back on players because they feel disrespected, and in doing so, the officials are hurting the game.
There is not a conversation going on between players and referees. Instead, officials look like the teacher who gave out detention slips like candy in high school to control a classroom. It didn’t work then; it’s not working now.
BONUS THING TO KNOW: It was Dame Time again on Wednesday. Watch Damian Lillard hit the game-winning three, then draw a game-saving charge to help Portland seal a win over Golden State.