Watch Joel Embiid score 41 points with 20 rebounds, Sixers handle Pacers

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PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid made his closing argument for MVP votes and all but wrapped up the NBA scoring title, scoring 41 points while adding 20 rebounds and four assists to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 133-120 victory Saturday over the Indiana Pacers.

Embiid shot 14 for 17 from the floor, went 11 of 15 from the foul line and made both his 3-point attempts in a game that Philadelphia (50-31) needed to win to remain alive in the hunt for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It was the first time this season that an NBA player scored 40 or more points and had 20 or more rebounds in a game. It was the third time in Embiid’s career it has happened – with all three times coming against the Pacers.

“I’ve always said that every single night, I want to dominate,” Embiid said. “If you are dominating, things can show up in a lot of different ways – whether it is offensively or defensively. Sometimes, the numbers don’t show it. But it’s good, I guess.”

Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said: “It’s methodical and historical. Whatever the calls you want to put on it, it’s what’s he’s been.”

James Harden had 22 points and 14 assists for Philadelphia, who also got double-digit point performances from Tobias Harris (18), Tyrese Maxey (18) and Danny Green (15).

“We’re getting better,” Rivers said.

Oshae Brissett scored 20 points and Tyrese Haliburton had 19 for Indiana (25-56), which lost its ninth straight game. The Pacers fell behind by 21 points in the first half, then cut the deficit to five late in the third quarter before Embiid and Harden began to take control of the game.

“We haven’t seen a guy like this in the history of the league who has this kind of power and skill,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said of Embiid. “He’s able to score on all three levels effortlessly. He’s an amazing player and it will be interesting to see what teams do in the playoffs to try to slow him down.”

Embiid is now averaging 30.6 points for the season, which is just ahead of LeBron James‘ 30.3-point-per-game clip for the Los Angeles Lakers and Kevin Durant‘s 30.1 average for the Brooklyn Nets.

But neither James nor Durant will play enough games to qualify for the statistical title; in an 82-game season, 58 games played is the minimum. That means the scoring race comes down to Embiid and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who would need a miracle finish to grab the scoring crown. The last center to win a scoring title with a more than 30 ppg average was Bob McAdoo, who averaged 31.1 points in 1976-77.

Embiid also has been considered one of main contenders for league MVP, along with Antetokounmpo and Denver’s Nikola Jokic. Saturday’s game was Embiid’s 13th scoring 40 or more points.

The Sixers can move up to the third seed in the East and a first-round matchup with Chicago with a victory over Detroit on Sunday and a Boston loss at Memphis. Otherwise, Philadelphia will face Toronto in the 4-5 matchup in the first round of the postseason tournament.

Embiid said no decision was made about his playing status for Sunday night’s game, which takes place at the same time Boston faces Memphis.

“I want to, but at the same time it’s a back to back and we have to get ready for the playoffs,” Embiid said. “I want to play because we still need to work on my spacing and chemistry. Whatever we can get out of this last game, it will be good.”

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.