Three things to watch: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Atlanta Hawks

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As it feels this entire season and playoffs have gone, this series swings on a health diagnosis.

What had seemed like a fairly easy path for Philadephia to the conference finals a couple of weeks ago now seems far more complicated, especially with Atlanta gaining confidence in its first-round series win over New York. Now this second-round series between the Hawks and 76ers has more questions than answers.

Here are three things to watch that will help decide the Atlanta vs. Philadelphia second-round series.

1) Can Joel Embiid play on his right knee? How well?

We’ve got two more things to watch for after this, but those two might be moot if the answer to the above questions are Embiid can’t go, or is such a shell of himself he can’t impact the game.

Embiid suffered a “small lateral meniscus tear” in the first round, with the team saying it does not require immediate surgery. He is officially questionable for Game 1. Embiid sat out Game 5 against Washington (the Sixers closed out the series anyway). The history of players pushing through a meniscus injury in the playoffs — think Andrew Bynum in 2010 — is not positive for 76ers fans. Guys were not the same.

Without Embiid against the Hawks, the 76ers could be in serious trouble.

When Embiid was on the court this season, the 76ers outscored their opponents by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, the Sixers were basically even with the opposition. In the first round against Washington, Philly was +33.4 when Embiid was on the court and again within a point of the Wizards when Embiid was out. The problem for Philly: Atlanta is much better than Washington.

Philadelphia needs Embiid not just on the court but playing at the MVP-level he showed this season (when healthy). He is the fulcrum of their offense, his gravity drawing defenders and opening up space for shooters such as Seth Curry or driving lanes for Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons. On defense, while Doc Rivers tried to prop up Ben Simmons for Defensive Player of the Year — and he is a very good, versatile perimeter defender — it is Embiid as a rim-protecting anchor that makes it all work.

Without peak Embiid, Philly is a nice playoff team that doesn’t scare anyone, and this series is a toss-up (if not seeing Atlanta as a slight favorite).

With peak Embiid, the Sixers win this series comfortably.

The questions are: will we even see Embiid, and if so how well does he move laterally, and how is his endurance?

Embiid will be a game-time decision for Game 1 on Sunday (even if the 76ers know what they are going to do, they will not want to make it public to pretend that gives them an advantage, while the Hawks will prep for all eventualities). Doc Rivers and teammates pumped up how good Embiid looked in practice, but all of that should be taken with more than a few grains of salt (remember, the Lakers were saying good things about Anthony Davis).

2) Can Trae Young keep taking bows against better defenders?

While the Knicks had the third-best defense in the NBA this season, it was a defense built on scheme and hustle around some competent defenders playing smart. To be blunt, it was more Tom Thibodeau than roster construction.

Trae Young torched those defenders to the tune of 29.2 points per game, he was taking bows on the Knicks’ center-court logo, and took over Reggie Miller’s honorary title of “most hated man in the Garden.”

Philadelphia had the second-best defense in the NBA this season, but they came about it differently — they have elite defensive talent who can make life difficult for any single perimeter player one-on-one. Specifically, Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle are All-Defensive Team level players and each is going to get their turns on Young, making his task a lot more difficult this series.

How efficient can Young be in the face of superior defenders? If he takes a step back, can Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari, and the rest of the Hawks use the space and matchups that create to make up the difference?

Life is about to get tougher for Young. How the Hawks respond will go a long way to decide this series.

3) Which team wins the free throw battle?

The team that wins the free throw battle — and by extension can get the other team in foul trouble — will have a big advantage in this series.

These teams were second and third overall in free throw attempts per game as a team. Trae Young led the NBA in free throw attempts — and garnered the wrath of opposing coaches and players for his run-up-the-back foul-drawing style. Joel Embiid and his bully ball play inside was second overall in free throws drawn.

Which team can carry that trend over to this series? Can Young get key Philly defenders in foul trouble? Can Embiid push Clint Capela and the other Hawks bigs to the bench due to early fouls? Those outcomes could swing individual games, and with it maybe the series.

Another thing to watch is the Sixers’ 3-point shooting percentage. Against the Knicks, the Hawks packed the paint and dared the Knicks to shoot over the top of them — which seemed dangerous against a team that shot 39.2% on the season from 3. It worked, the Knicks shot 34.2% on 3-pointers, while clogging the lane slowed Julius Randle, and the New York offense stumbled for five games.

Would that work against the Sixers? Philly has a roster that GM Daryl Morey tweaked when he came in, adding shooting with Seth Curry and Danny Green — both of whom shot better than 40% from 3 this season — plus Tobias Harris? If Embiid is healthy and if Tobias Harris is getting into the lane, will the Hawks try the same philosophy? Will it work against a Sixers team that was middle of the pack overall in shooting but had some knock-down guys?

Stephen Curry leaves game with knee injury, MRI Sunday

Golden State Warriors v Denver Nuggets
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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Warriors fans everywhere — not to mention coaching staff and players — are holding their breath.

Stephen Curry left the game against the Mavericks in the third quarter when he was defending Danny Green and the two collided, knocking knees. On the replay, Curry’s knee seems to bend slightly at an awkward angle.

Curry went to the Warriors’ bench, was looked at by the team medical staff, and soon went back to the locker room and did not return. X-rays taken of his knee were negative, but the MRI expected Sunday will be more telling.

Of extra concern is that this is the second injury to that leg in as many games, Curry was able to play through the first one.

Curry is averaging 27.9 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.4 assists a game. Of larger concern, the Warriors outscore opponents by 5 points per 100 possessions when Curry is on the court and 5.4 when he is off. At 27-26 the Warriors sit seventh in the West.

The defending champs have not lived up to that billing this season, never putting together a consistent run of high-level basketball to show us what we believe they are capable of. If Curry misses significant time (and potentially the All-Star Game) it will be longer before we get to see if these Warriors can pull it together.

Bamba suspended four games, Rivers three for fight Friday night

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The NBA came down hard on Mo Bamba and Austin Rivers (in a way they didn’t with Dillon Brooks).

The Magic’s Bamba was suspended four-game and the Timberwolves’ Rivers got a three-game suspension — both without pay — for their part in a fight between the teams Friday night.

In addition, Magic guard Jalen Suggs was suspended one game for “escalating the altercation by aggressively grabbing Rivers around the neck and pulling him to the floor.” The Timberwolves’ Jaden McDaniels was fined $20,000 for running into the scrum and pushing Bamba in the back.

As for why the relatively stiff penalties in this case, the NBA said: “Following the incident, Bamba attempted to continue to engage with Rivers in a hostile manner in the corridor outside the locker rooms where he also aggressively shoved a security representative. Both Bamba and Rivers continued the escalation on social media following the game.”

Friction between Bomba and Rivers started a few plays earlier when Rivers — who was in the game — missed a corner 3 in front of the Magic bench, and there was jawing from Bamba and others. Rivers came over and confronted and the fight started soon after, with Bamba coming off the bench. After an official review, five players were ejected: Rivers, McDaniels and Taurean Prince from the Timberwolves; Bamba and Suggs from the Magic.

Banba and Rivers did continue the fight on social media, which added to their time off.

The suspensions will all start on Sunday, Feb. 5.

Kyrie Irving trade request update: Clippers make offer, LeBron says “duh” Irving helps Lakers

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Nets fans booed Kyrie Irving when he was put up on the jumbotron at Barclays Center before the game Friday night (Irving was out vs. the Wizards).

Irving requested a trade out of Brooklyn before the Feb. 9 trade deadline, and the Nets are talking to several teams about a potential deal, with the Lakers, Suns and Mavericks at the front of the line. This trade could come together in the next few days, allowing the teams involved to make other moves before next Thursday’s deadline.

Here are the latest Kyrie Irving trade rumors:

• The Los Angeles Clippers have thrown their hat in the ring and made an offer for Irving, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed by Law Murray of The Athletic.

There is pressure from ownership on down for the Clippers to win big this season — the team’s fourth with Kwahi Leonard and Paul George — and they need help at the point guard spot (they are interested in the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet if he becomes available as well). The Clippers have a lot of salaries between $10 million and $20 million — Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, Robert Covington, Reggie Jackson, Nicholas Batum — who can be packaged in different configurations, plus they have young talent that can be added in Terance Mann and Brandon Boston Jr.

Bringing in Irving would be a massive gamble by the Clippers — do they need another mercurial star prone to missing games? — but the Clippers want to win and will push all their chips into the middle.

LeBron James was asked after the Lakers’ loss Saturday night if Irving is the kind of player that can get the Lakers to the finish line and have them thinking championship.

“Obviously that’s, the word you use, ‘duh’ question when talking about a player like that.”

• Whatever you think of Irving the person, his trade demand is a smart business move — the Nets were not going to give him the max contract extension he wants, so he is trying to force his way to his next team, one that will pay up. And by pay up, that’s a four-year, $198.5 million contract. Wojnarowski of ESPN said this on NBA Countdown Saturday.

“Irving, who is in the final year of a deal that pays him $36.9 million, has been seeking in the neighborhood of a four-year, $198.5 million maximum extension available to him until June 30, sources said. If Irving is traded, he is eligible to sign a two-year, $78.6 million extension with his new team until June 30.”

Any team that trades for Irving will have to pay up this summer when he is a free agent — he’s too expensive to be a rental. There are reports the Lakers and Mavericks are hesitant to give Irving that kind of long-term deal.

• If Irving doesn’t get traded before the deadline, he could hold out for the rest of the season, Stephen A. Smith of ESPN reports.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
36

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,352

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors
Feb. 13 at Trail Blazers

When is LeBron projected to break the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 9 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, although a hot game on Feb. 7 against the Thunder could make that game a possibility.

How long has Kareem held the scoring record?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record — too less fanfare than is happening with LeBron (although Wilt Chamberlain was unhappy with all the attention KAJ was receiving) — on April 5, 1984, when he scored his 31,420th point, breaking the record which had been held by Chamberlain. This was the height of the Showtime Lakers era and the team made the Finals that season but lost in seven games to Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Lakers would win the NBA title three of the next four years and Kareem would keep adding to that point total and his legacy until he retired after the 1989 season.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron tuned out the Lakers’ Kyrie Irving trade speculationat least until after the game — and dropped 27 points on the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night, shooting 10-of-22 overall but 1-of-7 beyond the arc. It wasn’t enough as the Pelicans snapped their 10-game losing streak, 131-126, behind 35 points from former Laker Brandon Ingram. This was a tough loss for a Lakers team trying to climb up in the West standings, but it puts LeBron within striking distance of the record next game.

• LeBron scored 26 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists on Thursday night. He also gave the Lakers their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:35 left, and the Lakers held on to beat the Pacers 112-111. LeBron shot 11-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3 for the game.

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”