Mike Scott

Getty Images

Three things to Watch in Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors

2 Comments

There are other good ones: Boston vs. Milwaukee, Houston vs. Golden State.

But no other second-round series is quite the measuring stick, nor comes loaded with the pressure of what a loss will mean this summer than Philadelphia vs. Toronto does.

Elton Brand, the Sixers GM, ended “the process” and traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris because Philadelphia wanted to win now. The Sixers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, hoping that chemistry would develop quickly, winning would follow, and Butler and Harris would agree to stay when they become free agents in July. A second-round exit changes that equation.

Toronto also went all-in to win now, trading DeMar DeRozan and more away to get Kawhi Leonard and the chance to woo him for a year, to develop a relationship and bond, then to win and convince him to stay. The Raptors have rested Leonard’s body (he missed 22 games this season, most for “load management”), given Leonard whatever he wanted, yet nobody knows what the quiet is going to decide this July. However, a second-round exit after all of that could have Leonard packing his bags for Southern California.

This is as high-stakes as it gets in the second round, and this series is going to hinge on just a few things — like Philly winning a game in Toronto for the first time since 2012. Here are three things that will help determine the outcome of this series.

1) Watch the Marc Gasol on Joel Embiid matchup. The Raptors traded for Marc Gasol at the deadline just because of this matchup.

The numbers support Toronto’s move. Look at NBA.com’s matchup data and over four games in the past two years Gasol held Embiid to just 10-of-29 shooting (34.5 percent), and just 16.3 points per 100 possessions (about half Embiid’s average production). In two meetings this season when Gasol was with Memphis, Embiid had a dreadful 40.4 true shooting percentage and averaged 14.5 points and 15 rebounds a game (he averaged 27.5 points per game for the season).

Embiid’s knee and how well he moves are also remaining question marks.

Embiid is critical to Philly’s offense, the team was 5.4 points per 100 possessions worse this past season when he was off the floor (they have been better with him off the court in the playoffs, but that speaks more to Brooklyn and matchups than what will happen this series). The Sixers are going to have a hard enough time scoring on the Toronto defense, they need peak Embiid, getting buckets inside, throwing down dunks, dominating the glass, and drawing in defenders to open up shots and lanes for others. If Gasol can continue to keep Embiid in check, Philly is in trouble.

2) Which team can find an offensive advantage in what will be a defensive slugfest? If you’re looking for offense, wait for the Houston/Golden State playoff series. This series will not be that, it is two good defensive teams that have length and lock-down defenders that will cause matchup problems the other way. Scoring will be at a premium.

In two meetings this season (both before the trade deadline), Kawhi Leonard stole Ben Simmons’ lunch and bullied him all over the yard. Leonard remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and Toronto can switch Leonard onto Jimmy Butler or any Sixers getting hot (outside Embiid). It’s not a one-man show, they also have long and active defenders in Danny Green and Pascal Siakam who can take guys like Tobias Harris or J.J. Redick and make their life difficult. Toronto was the fifth best defensive team in the NBA this season and is the second best so far in the postseason. They will take away driving lanes from a Philly team that already struggles with floor spacing, making good looks at a premium.

The reverse is true as well — Butler will get time on Leonard in what will be an old-school physical battle, making life hard for the guy Toronto turns to in the clutch. Simmons’ length will take things away for Siakam or anyone he is matched up on, Harris and Redick are solid team defenders, and Embiid is one of the best defensive centers in the game anchoring the paint.

Which team can hit contested, difficult jumpers? Which team will turn defense into some (relatively) easy transition buckets?

Which team’s coaching staff will come up with a way to free up their scorers best? Scoring will be at a premium and whichever team can find a way to break through a defensive stalemate will have a massive advantage.

3) Can Toronto’s bench win them the series? This year’s Raptors bench — Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby (if/when he returns from his emergency appendectomy right before the playoffs) — is not as good as the Raptors best-in-the-league bench from a season ago. The Raptors averaged 35.8 points a game from bench players this season, down from 41.2 last season, and the unit’s effective field goal percentage dropped by nearly 10 points.

But it’s still better than Philly’s bench. By a longshot.

Philly’s starting five — Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid — was a ridiculous +62 points per 100 possessions against Brooklyn in the first round. However, they only played 12.3 minute per game as a unit (remember Embiid also missed one game due to his sore knee). When the Brooklyn bench, led by Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, got on the floor, the tide turned.

Philadephia’s best bench player, Mike Scott, is out for at least Game 1 with a sore heel. That means a lot of T.J. McConnell, James Ennis, and Boban Marjanovic for as long as he can stay on the floor before the Raptors play him off. None of that is good for Philly.

Against Toronto, look for Brown to lean on his starters more, maybe up to 20+ minutes a game (depending on what Embiid can handle with his knee). Brown did a good job with rotations and getting those starters out there at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters — against the Nets second unit — and it had tremendous success. Toronto will be prepared for that.

The Sixers need to dominate when their starters are in and the bench groups (staggered with starters) need to just hold the fort. Whether they can against a Raptors bench that knows its role is another question.

PREDICTION: Toronto in five. Maybe the Sixers can take this series seven games, they have the raw talent. They need Embiid to play at an MVP level to have a shot in this series. However, Philly’s lack of depth limits Brett Brown’s options to adjust when things do not work, while Nick Nurse has much more variety at his disposal. Toronto will make adjustments Philadelphia cannot match, and that will decide the series.

Joel Embiid returns, puts up 31 and 16 to lead 76ers past Nets, give Philly 3-1 lead

1 Comment

NEW YORK — Joel Embiid scored and rebounded. He blocked shots and even threw the most important pass of the game.

The only thing he didn’t do is lose his cool after his hard foul triggered a scuffle.

After having to sit out the last game, there was no way Embiid was going to risk an ejection and miss his chance to help the Philadelphia 76ers seize control of the series.

Embiid had 31 points and 16 rebounds, and passed to Mike Scott for the go-ahead 3-pointer with 18 seconds left as the 76ers beat the Brooklyn Nets 112-108 on Saturday to take a 3-1 series lead.

Embiid also had a flagrant foul that led to a scuffle and two ejections during an eventful return to the lineup after missing Game 3 with a sore left knee.

“I know these guys are going to go at me because they want me to retaliate, so I’ve got to be mature when I’m on the court and just stay cool and not react,” Embiid said.

“Today I could have reacted but I felt like my team needed me more than they needed Jared Dudley, so I’ve just got to stay cool and mature and do my job.”

Tobias Harris had 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists for the 76ers. They can advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight season with a victory at home Tuesday night.

They got a big boost from the return of Embiid, who scored eight straight points in the fourth quarter after the Nets led by seven. He helped the 76ers overcome the loss of Jimmy Butler, who was ejected in the third quarter after Embiid’s hard foul on Jarrett Allen.

Even that ended up working out for the 76ers. Scott took what probably would have been Butler’s position on the floor in the final seconds and turned Embiid’s seventh assist into the go-ahead basket.

Embiid also had six blocked shots.

“Just look at the magnitude of what the numbers say, the influence that the numbers say that he must have had on the game,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “To have 31 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, six blocked shots and you win, well it’s hard to sort of say it any better than that. He was dominant.”

Caris LeVert scored 25 points after being inserted into the Nets’ starting lineup. D’Angelo Russell and Allen each added 21.

Dudley also was inserted into the starting lineup for the Nets and had been agitating the 76ers with his defense and his talking, but was gone midway through the third quarter as one of the central figures in the scuffle that spilled into the stands.

Embiid swung his arm forcefully while fouling Allen, and Dudley quickly moved in and bumped Embiid. Butler then ran in and pushed Dudley to start the shoving. Dudley, Simmons and referee Ed Malloy all got knocked into the seats, and after a lengthy video review, Butler and Dudley were given technical fouls and ejected, and Embiid’s foul was ruled a flagrant 1.

Dudley said he was trying to send a message. The Nets have been upset over an elbow Embiid hit Allen with in Game 2 that they felt should have been an ejection, and were further angered after when Embiid laughed as he apologized in his press conference.

“When you have a guy giving flagrant fouls, I mean Joel Embiid is second in the league in flagrant fouls,” Dudley said. “So for that elbow he had before just to have a flagrant 1, no fine, no nothing, laughing in the media, if you think that a team that I play on is going to have (to accept) that, that’s another thing coming, especially on this young team.”

Embiid would later make the biggest mark with his offense. The 76ers were trying to get the ball to him trailing by one after Joe Harris’ layup, but Embiid couldn’t control the pass under the rim. But he regained the ball and found Scott in the corner for a 3 and a 110-108 lead.

Allen then turned the ball over after three Sixers surrounded him and Harris closed out the scoring with two free throws. Nets coach Kenny Atkinson was angry afterward, feeling Allen was wrapped up by Harris as he tried to roll to the basket.

Dudley and Simmons jawed at each other after Dudley gave him a long stare with his arms up after hitting a 3-pointer during a 9-0 run that gave Brooklyn a 63-53 lead shortly before halftime. The Nets led 63-57 at the break.

76ers’ offense goes from 0 to 60 (more accurately, 102 to 145) in a hurry

2 Comments

Ben Simmons seethed about 76ers fans booing the team Saturday.

Yesterday, Simmons held his hand to his ear calling for more noise from the Philadelphia crowd.

After scoring a pedestrian 102 points in their Game 1 loss, the 76ers got their offense on track in a 145-123 win over the Nets last night. That 43-point regulation scoring increase between games of a playoff series is the largest in the last three postseasons and tied for 14th-largest of the shot-clock era.

Here are the biggest regulation scoring increases between games of a playoff series in the shot-clock era:

image

Philadelphia had six more possessions in Game 2 than Game 1, but pace doesn’t cloud the picture here. The 76ers are better when they play faster.

Even considering pace, the picture is rosy. Philadelphia’s offensive rating went from 103.0 to 138.1. Based on regular-season team rankings, that’s the equivalent of going from worst than last place to far better than first place.

Here’s the 76ers Game 1 and 2 offensive ratings on the scale of each team’s regular-season offensive rating. Scroll wayyyy down for Game 2:

image

Simmons keyed Philadelphia’s turnaround. At his best, he attacks the basket in transition and semi-transition. That either creates easy looks for him or, if the defense collapses to stop him, he has the passing skills to find open teammates. There are still questions whether that style works against better defenses, but it sure did yesterday. Simmons finished with 18 points and 12 assists.

Joel Embiid still looks hobbled, but he was no longer limited to hanging on the perimeter. After shooting 0-for-5 on 3-pointers in Game 1, Embiid scored 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting (all inside the arc).

J.J. Redick and Mike Scott got on track with their distance shooting. After continuing his slow start to the series, Tobias Harris eventually found a rhythm within Game 2. Boban Marjanovic was sinking short jumper after short jumper. Offensive minus Jonathon Simmons got pulled from the rotation.

Jimmy Butler, the lone impressive 76er in Game 1, faded. (Nobody should overreact to a single game, but performances like these could give Philadelphia pause when Butler hits free agency this summer).

But this was a grand display of offensive execution.

The 76ers shot 61% on 2-pointers, 39% on 3-pointers and 81% on free throws. They grabbed 15 offensive rebounds to Brooklyn’s just 20 defensive rebounds. And they limited their turnovers to a reasonable 12.

Philadelphia’s 145 points were the most in a playoff game since 1992 (Trail Blazers 153, Suns 151 in 2OT) and most in a playoff regulation since 1990 (Celtics 157, Knicks 128).

That output is not a total shock. The 76ers projected to have one of the postseason’s best offenses, and the Nets projected to have one of the postseason’s worst defenses.

But after Game 1, it was sure tough to see this coming.

Joel Embiid scores 39, grabs 13 rebounds to beat Nets

4 Comments

PHILADELPHIA (AP) Joel Embiid is raising his game in anticipation of the playoffs.

Embiid had 39 points, 13 rebounds and six assists to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to a 123-110 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday night.

JJ Redick scored 18 points and Ben Simmons had 16 points and eight assists for the 76ers, who snapped a two-game losing streak.

The game matched teams that would’ve met in the first round of the playoffs had the postseason started Thursday. The 76ers have a strong hold on the No. 3 seed in the East with seven games remaining, and they moved three games ahead of idle Indiana.

“We might see them in the playoffs, so it was good to see where we’re at, especially after two losses,” Embiid said. “I’ve been feeling it. I’ve been getting ready. I’m excited.”

Embiid has a bad taste in his mouth from last season’s second-round exit via Boston. In that series, Embiid was forced to wear a mask to protect an eye injury. He’s preparing for a deeper postseason run this time around.

“It’s definitely going to be a different story,” he said.

Embiid did his damage inside and outside against the Nets. The All-Star center got off to a fast start, scoring 14 of Philadelphia’s first 19 points while making five of seven shots, including all three 3-point tries.

Joe Harris scored 22 points and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added 19 for Brooklyn, which is clinging to a playoff spot.

The Nets began Thursday sixth in the East, but dropped to seventh with Detroit’s 115-98 win over Orlando on Thursday. Brooklyn is a half-game in front of No. 8 Miami and just one game ahead of the ninth-place Magic and two games clear of No. 10 Charlotte.

“We have to be better to beat a team like this,” Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said.

Brooklyn finished a grueling seven-game road trip 2-5. And it doesn’t get easier for the Nets, who are trying to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season.

Brooklyn’s remaining six-game schedule includes contests against Boston, Toronto, Indiana, Miami and a pair vs. Milwaukee.

“We have to recharge our batteries,” Atkinson said. “It’s been a long trip. We have to somehow get that juice back. We lacked a little juice tonight.”

Philadelphia surged to an early lead and never let go.

Helped by making eight of their first 10 3-point attempts, the 76ers led by as many as 20 points in the first half before settling for a 68-58 lead at the break. The Nets closed to within six at 71-65 and had a chance to cut it to four with Rodions Kurucs at the line for two free throws 2:42 into the third quarter. But Kurucs missed both foul shots, and Philadelphia ran off 10 straight to take a 15-point lead.

“It’s really bitten us,” Atkinson said of the free-throw shooting. “You have to make your free throws.”

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING

The teams received a combined four technical fouls. Three of the fouls came in the first half, all from referee Scott Foster for arguing calls. For Philadelphia, Embiid and Jimmy Butler were whistled for techs, while Brooklyn’s D'Angelo Russell received one. Simmons was called for a tech in the second half for dissent.

HEAD GAME

Embiid, Butler and Mike Scott wore tie-back headbands. It was Embiid’s idea, and the big man said he might stick to the fashion statement after draining three 3-pointers.

TIP-INS

Brooklyn: Allen Crabbe (right knee) missed his sixth straight game. … The Nets dropped to 17-22 on the road. … Brooklyn struggled from the free-throw line, shooting 19 of 29. … Russell, who was averaging 28.3 points on the road trip, scored 13.

Philadelphia: Assistant coach Billy Lange accepted the head coaching job at Saint Joseph’s University on Thursday. Lange’s duties coaching the defense will be assumed by Jim O’Brien. … Philadelphia improved to 30-9 at home and 13-7 since adding Tobias Harris.

UP NEXT

Brooklyn: Open a three-game homestand Saturday against Boston.

Philadelphia: At Minnesota Saturday night.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

NBA Power Rankings: Familiar faces from Bay Area back on top

Associated Press
1 Comment

A familiar face is back on top of the power rankings, the Golden State Warriors, who flipped the switch in a couple of key games (Houston, Oklahoma City) to remind us of their status as the team to beat. The Bucks only slide down one spot.

 
Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (48-22, last week No. 4). Steve Kerr called last week’s loss to the Suns “a wake up call” for Golden State, and the team responded with wins against Houston and Oklahoma City, holding each of them to less than 40% shooting. All without Durant. Andrew Bogut is back and in his debut showed he can give the Warriors a few quality minutes behind DeMarcus Cousins (once Boogie gets back from his mild ankle injury) and that’s all they need from the Australian.

 
Bucks small icon 2. Bucks (53-18, LW 1). Malcolm Brogdon is going to be out for a while, likely into the first round of the playoffs (at least), and the loss to Philadelphia on Sunday showed how much the Bucks will miss him. Brogdon is both a threat to shoot the three (he’s shooting 42.6% from deep but takes fewer than four per game) and his straight line drives to the rim to create shots. The loss to the Sixers may be an anomaly but it was the realization of the worst playoff fears for the Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo went off for 52 (a chunk of that late) but the other Bucks shot 31% from three and didn’t step up under pressure. That can’t happen in the postseason.

 
Nuggets small icon 3. Nuggets (47-22, LW 5). The Nuggets still have a shot at the best record in the West (they are just half-a-game back of the Warriors and are tied in the loss column) but they are going to have to get some tough wins on the road to do it — 6 of Denver’s next 8 games are on the road, and the teams left on its schedule have a much higher winning percentage than who Golden State faces (the teams play each other April 2). However, the win in Boston shows the Nuggets can get the needed wins. They just need more plays like this Nikola Jokic game-winner against Dallas.

 
Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (46-25, LW 6). Philadelphia is 6-1 when their dream five start the game. That lineup is besting teams by 17.2 points per 100 possessions when on the court together, dominating on both ends. However, the key in the postseason will be finding lineups with bench players that work while starters rest (and are staggered in with the bench). Against the Bucks Sunday the fivesome of Tobias Harris, Jimmy Butler, Mike Scott, T.J. McConnell, and Boban Marjanovic was +12 in just under 11 minutes. The Sixers need more of that.

 
Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (45-26, LW 2). Houston has won games where it shot poorly recently (except against the Warriors) because the team is finally defending well again — the Rockets have a defensive rating of 107.7 in their last 15 games, eighth best in the league in that stretch. The Rockets need those wins to hang on to the three seed, Portland is just 1.5 games back and seeds 3-8 in the West are separated by just 3.5 games. Winners of 11-of-12, the Rockets have 4-of-5 coming up on the road, but only two of those games are against playoff teams.

 
Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (50-21, LW 3). Toronto is 12.5 points per 100 possessions worse when Kyle Lowry sits and the Raptors offense falls apart (the offense scores less than a point per possession when Jeremy Lin is on the court). It was evident in the loss to Detroit, but the Raptors thought Lowry would only be out two games until Michell Robinson fell on his ankle Monday, now he’s out for a while longer, although it doesn’t look to be a severe ankle injury. Toronto could use him in the upcoming home-and-home against Oklahoma City. The Raptors remain pretty much locked in as the two seed in the East, injury or no.

 
Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (43-28, LW 7). Boston GM Danny Ainge called his team “inconsistent” right now, and that’s pretty spot on. They have won 5-of-7 including thrashing the Warriors, but losses to the Clippers and Nuggets raised questions about how far they can really go. Another concern is the struggles of the starting lineup in recent weeks. With plans to rest Al Horford a few games as well as other starters down the stretch (with an eye toward having them fresh for the playoffs), will Boston make up the half game it is behind Indiana and get home court in the first round?

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (42-29, LW 11). After that dreadful rodeo road trip, we kind of wrote the Spurs off, but that’s always a mistake. San Antonio has won nine in a row and the Spurs have a shot at home court in the first round of the playoffs (San Antonio is the five seed, just 1.5 games back of Portland and home court). In the last 9 games the Spurs have a +9.1 net rating. While the offense has been good during the streak (top 10) it is the defense — which has struggled much of the season — returning to elite status that has made the big difference (103.1 defensive net rating in those 9 games, third best in the league).

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (43-27, LW 9). Not having C.J. McCollum for at least a week — and likely longer, McCollum told NBC Sports he’s taking it week by week but he doesn’t have a timeline — will make it challenging for Portland to hang on to the four seed and home court in the first round. San Antonio, OKC, Utah, and the LA Clippers are all within two games of the Blazers. Portland leaned heavily on its starting five to win games, now it needs more out of Jake Layman and Rodney Hood to win enough to keep home court.

 
Jazz small icon 10. Jazz (41-29, LW 13). Winners of four in a row and with the easiest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way, as long as the Jazz take care of business they will climb higher than the seven seed, and home court is not out of the question (although it’s a long shot at two games back with 11 to play). The Jazz are doing it with their old formula: They have the best defense in the NBA over the last 10 games and held a few teams to less than a point per possession, then they are getting just enough offense from Donovan Mitchell and company. But that pedestrian offense remains the thing holding them back.

 
Clippers small icon 11. Clippers (42-30, LW 10). Doc Rivers is deservedly going to get a lot of Coach of the Year votes, and Steve Ballmer and the Clippers understand when you have something good you don’t let it go, so he locked Rivers up (no Lakers in Rivers’ future). The Clippers have been a well-run basketball operation for a few years now and extending Rivers fits with that. Another something that works in L.A.? Lou Williams. He has made a strong Sixth Man of the Year push and shots like this help.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (44-28, LW 12). The Pacers keep playing great defense to stay in games, then getting spurts of offense that spark dramatic comeback wins. Any fan of basketball has to admire the grit and tenacity with which this team plays. Nothing speaks to the fight in these Pacers like coming from 19 down against the Thunder, setting up the Wesley Matthews game winner.

 
Thunder small icon 13. Thunder (42-29, LW 8). Oklahoma City has lost three in a row — because their offense has gone missing, having the second-worst net rating in the league during the last 10 games — and is now tied with San Antonio for the 5/6 seed in the West, with the 7/8 seeds (Jazz, Clippers) both just half a game back. Why should those four bunched-up teams concern Thunder fans? Because OKC has the toughest remaining schedule of any West playoff team (starting with a home-and-home against Toronto starting on Wednesday) and the Thunder could fall farther down the standings in the West.

 
Heat small icon 14. Heat (34-36, LW 17). They have won 7-of-9 against a tough schedule, including beating the Pistons and Hornets in the past week. The wins have come in bunches with Bam Adebayo starting and Hasaan Whiteside coming in with energy off the bench, that rotation has helped the Heat defense. All those wins has kept Miami 1.5 games clear of Orlando for the final playoff slot in the East, but the Heat are on the road this week (and the Magic have a very soft schedule the rest of the way).

Pistons small icon 15. Pistons (36-34, LW 15). Would the real Detroit Pistons please stand up? Please stand up? Is it the team that got blown out by the Nets and Heat, and Monday lost to the Cavaliers? Or, is it the team that beat Raptors twice this month (Dwane Casey revenge games)? The Pistons are inconsistent because Reggie Jackson has been off his game (Blake Griffin has struggled with his shot of late, too). That loss Monday in Cleveland was the first of a five-game road trip for Detroit.

 
Nets small icon 16. Nets (37-36, LW 14). The Nets have gone 1-3 to start a seven-game road trip (although the win was a dramatic comeback against the Kings that could turn the trip around). The blame for the stumbles falls on the team’s offense, third worst in the NBA over the last 10 games. Specifically, it falls on their guards — D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie and company have gone cold of late — at least until Russell in the fourth quarter against the Kings Tuesday. The Nets have slid down to the seven seed and are just three games away from falling out of the playoffs entirely. Add to that they have the toughest schedule in the NBA the rest of the way and Brooklyn needs to find some wins to stay in the dance.

 
Kings small icon 17. Kings (34-36, LW 16). Sacramento’s long-shot bid to make a run to the playoffs took a punch to the gut Tuesday night with the worst loss of the team’s season: blowing a 25-point fourth quarter lead to the Nets. Sacramento’s playoff dreams were put on their death by a recent 1-3 road trip where all the losses were in games the Kings were within five points in the final five minutes but couldn’t close it out. The Kings’ goal now should be to finish the season 8-4 and be above .500 for the campaign for the first time since 2006 (or at least 7-5 and get to .500).

 
Magic small icon 18. Magic (33-38, LW 19). The Magic have the softest schedule of any team fighting for a playoff spot in the East, but that only helps if the team wins games — Orlando is 3-4 in its last seven with losses to Cleveland, Memphis, and Washington. The Magic are still just 1.5 games back of the heat and have won the first two of a five-game homestand, but that has to be just the start. Orlando needs more out of Terrence Ross and the bench to make this run.

 
19. Timberwolves (32-39, LW 18). Minnesota is turning heads with the amazing play of Karl-Anthony Towns sparking an offensive resurgence, but the team is 3-7 in its last 10 because it has the worst defense in the NBA by far in that stretch, a defensive net rating of 121.2. On the bright side, rookie forward Keita Bates-Diop is looking like he could be a rotation player.

Pelicans small icon 20. Pelicans (31-42, LW 20). Elfrid Payton has had a triple-double in five straight games. The only other players in NBA history to do that? Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, and Michael Jordan. That’s elite company. Of course, the Pelicans lost the first four of those, in part because they are one of the worst clutch teams in the NBA (15-26 in games within five points in the final five minutes). Which is why the win over Dallas in OT Monday was a nice change of pace.

 
Wizards small icon 21. Wizards (30-41, LW 23). Bradley Beal has thrived without John Wall next to him and, barring a collapse, will be just the 12th guard in NBA history to average 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. Beal is averaging 29.9 points per game since the All-Star break and had a pair of 40-point games last weekend. Beal could make the All-NBA team, which shows how impressive he’s been in spite of the team’s struggles.

 
Hornets small icon 22. Hornets (31-39, LW 21). Charlotte’s playoff chances are not dead yet, but the prognosis is not good. Sunday’s loss to Miami, where Charlotte scored just 75 points, likely did them in. The Hornets are three games back of he Heat with 12 to play and likely need to go at least 8-4, maybe 9-3, the rest of the way to get an invite to the dance. Not impossible, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 
Grizzlies small icon 23. Grizzlies (28-42, LW 22). Given some extra run since coming over in the Marc Gaol trade, Jonas Valanciunas has reminded teams he can get them some points. Valanciunas has averaged 17.9 points on 58.2% shooting plus is grabbing 8 rebounds a game since joining the Grizzlies. He has a player option on his contract for next season for $17.6 million and it seems likely he will pick that up (unless he’s looking for a longer deal with more security, which is not likely out there). Expect his name to come up in trade talks, but wherever he plays next season he has value.

 
Lakers small icon 24. Lakers (31-40, LW 24). Los Angeles has clearly let go of the rope on the rest of this season — they are bottom 10 in the league in both offense and defense in their last 10 games, with an -8.1 net rating over that stretch. That’s why the focus in Los Angeles has already shifted to the off-the-court moves from the team this summer, starting with who the next head coach will be. That’s not decided, the only thing we know is it will not be Doc Rivers. By the way, LeBron James can still do this.

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (24-48, LW 25). Despite the losses piling up and Hawks fans watching NCAA Tournament games this weekend on scouting expeditions, the Hawks remain one of the most entertaining teams to watch down the stretch. Trae Young is shooting from anywhere in the building and is electric to watch, John Collins is going to be a stud, but maybe the most fun part is 42-year Vince Carter still making plays and being a part of the action.

 
Mavericks small icon 26. Mavericks (28-42, LW 26). Luka Doncic is going to win Rookie of the Year and continues to impress, but his game has slipped a little as the long season has ground him down. It has been most evident his high 13.4 turnover ratio in his last 10 games (his assist ratio is still at 20%). Congrats to Dirk Nowitzki for passing Wilt Chamberlain for sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (20-52, LW 28). Chicago has played poorly of late, even for them. On one end their defense has been one of the worst in the NBA, while on the other end Lauri Markkanen has gone into a scoring slump. The only time that changed was the one game the Bulls could have stood to lose, their defense showed up in a win over the Suns, meaning the Bulls almost certainly will enter the draft lottery in the No. 4 slot.

 
Suns small icon 28. Suns (17-55, LW 27). The Suns picked up a key loss Monday in Chicago. Going into that game the Suns had the third worst record in the NBA but had won 6-of-10, while the Bulls were the fourth worst record. If the Suns won that game the Bulls would have had a real shot at one of the three worst records in the league, with each of those teams getting a 14% chance of Zion Williamson, er, the top pick in the draft at the lottery. The Bulls won and now are three games better than the Suns and will not make that up, meaning the Bulls will have a 12.5% shot at Zion. Not a huge difference, but when you’re talking about a franchise player every little bit helps.

 
Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (18-53, LW 29). Maybe Monday is the Cavaliers’ night. This past Monday Cleveland beat playoff-bound Detroit, the Monday before that they beat Toronto, but they lost the three games in between those contests. Collin Sexton has come on as a scorer lately, having scored at least 23 points in six straight games as he starts to feel more comfortable with the NBA three (and that means fewer midranges).

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (14-57, LW 30). Knicks fans, don’t just watch Duke and drool at the possibilities in the NBA draft, don’t forget to check out Ja Morant from Murray State, the kind of scoring point guard New York might want. Also, D’Andre Hunter from Virginia is the kind of defensive wing who can get out in transition and hit threes who would look good with the Knicks next season. Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech also would be a good fit.