The NBA season has less than three weeks to go, 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) Suns officially headed to playoffs — and will be a threat there
The last time the Phoenix Suns were in the playoffs, Steve Nash was finding Amar’e Stoudemire in transition, Grant Hill was a starting forward on the team, Rihanna was everywhere with “Rude Boy,” and “Hot Tub Time Machine” was still in theaters.
It’s been since 2010, but the Phoenix Suns are headed back to the playoffs. It became official when the Suns knocked off the Kawhi-less Clippers 109-101. The Suns are headed to the playoffs for the same reasons they won on Thursday: A disciplined system installed by coach Monty Williams, Devin Booker putting up points (21), and Chris Paul taking over late (15 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the fourth quarter).
Other teams in the West are more fearful of facing the teams around the Suns in the standings — the Jazz, the Clippers, the Lakers — because those teams are playoff tested, and the L.A. teams have Finals MVP stars. Playoff basketball — with its slower pace, drilling down on one team, and the value of each possession rising — will be a new experience for Booker and Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson and others on this team. Throw in an undersized backcourt, and potential opponents see places to attack the Suns.
Those other teams may be in for a surprise. Phoenix is a detail-oriented team with a top 10 NBA offense and defense, a quality rim and paint protector in Ayton, multiple shot creators who can exploit mismatches, and with CP3 running the show the Suns are already playing at a playoff pace (26th in the league in pace). More importantly, this is a Phoenix team that is good in the clutch, it is 21-11 in games this season that were within five points in the final five minutes, and that comes back to Paul being one of the most clutch players in the league (ask the Clippers). The Suns are like the vintage Spurs in that they don’t beat themselves. For the same reasons the Suns surprised people with the second-best record in the NBA, they can surprise teams in the playoffs. They will not be an easy out.
And now it is official, the Suns are in the playoffs.
2) The Philadelphia 76ers also clinch a playoff berth
From the start of the season, the expectations in Philadelphia were to win a championship, not just make the playoffs. However, securing a postseason spot is a step along the title road, and with a 127-83 thrashing of the Atlanta Hawks, it is official:
The Philadelphia 76ers are headed to the playoffs.
“Coming into the season our goal was to win a championship, but there’s a lot of steps to get there,” Joel Embiid said via NBC Sports Philadelphia. “You’ve got to make the playoffs and you’ve got to win the first round, second round, conference finals … it’s a long road.
There are three elite, championship contender teams in the East: Brooklyn, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. What the 76ers bring to the party are two key things: An elite halfcourt defense — second-best in the NBA, according to Cleaning the Glass — and an MVP-level player in Embiid that no other team has a good answer for. Embiid can win Philly a lot of playoff games.
As discussed in the latest PBT Podcast focused on the Eastern Conference playoff chase, securing the top seed in the East matters a lot because whoever finishes second and third will have to face each other, to go through both of the other two top teams in the East (Philly sits one game back of Brooklyn for the top spot and has an easier schedule the rest of the way).
Beyond that, for the Sixers, postseason success will come down to the guys not named Embiid. Defenses will collapse and focus on the big man, and then it comes time to can Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons create shots, is there enough shooting with Seth Curry and company, and can this team find ways to win that are not just Embiid overwhelming players. Other players have stepped up for the 76ers for much of the season, but the real test is still coming.
3) Watch Nikola Jokic with a game-saving block on Zion Williamson
Nikola Jokic is likely to win the MVP award because he has put up historic numbers on offense this season, leading the Nuggets to a likely top-four seed in the East, and he has shown more durability this season than other contenders for the award.
The knock on Jokic for MVP is his defense, but it’s not as bad as some would suggest — he’s not an elite rim protector, but he can make plays on that end. Case in point, a game-saving block on Zion Williamson Wednesday night.
Was that a foul? I’d say no, you don’t make that call when he got ball — and the hand is part of the ball when touching it — at that point in the game. We’ll see what the Last Two Minute report says.
Jokic has the basketball IQ and hands to at least make some plays on the defensive end. He also had 32 points and eight assists in the Nuggets win; they are now 7-1 since Jamal Murray went down.