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Three things we learned on Wednesday: Knicks, Sixers seem headed in opposite directions

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Here’s what you missed around the NBA while trying to put out the fire your pet tortoise caused

1) The Sixers have won 3-of-4 and look confident; The Knicks on the other hand… 
It’s amazing how one shot, one comeback can change perceptions, alter the feelings around an entire franchise. Or in this case, two franchises.

The shot was Philadelphia’s T.J. McConnell’s game winner Wednesday night to beat the Knicks. Of course, it was preceded by the Knicks blowing a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Joel Embiid banking in a three-pointer, then Kristaps Porzingis — New York’s best player — air balling a wide-open corner three to give the Sixers a chance. Credit due to Sixers coach Brett Brown here — most coaches would have called a timeout on this final play and tried to assert some control by setting up a play, but a defense scrambling in chaos is the best time to score and Brown kept his hands in his pockets and trusted his team. It worked.

The Knicks are a mess. Derrick Rose was back from going AWOL and had an efficient 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting — he was still -21 for the game (that stat can be misleading, but here it speaks to problems on the defensive end). The Knicks have lost 9-of-10, have fallen out of the playoffs, and are five games below .500 with their next five games being against teams in the playoff chase — the Bulls, Raptors, Hawks, Celtics, and Wizards. New York needs wins in there or it’s going to get ugly. And when it gets ugly James Dolan tends to step in. There’s some old-school Chicken Little “the sky is falling” going on amongst Knicks fans right now, and it’s hard to blame them. What exactly is the reason for hope right now?

The Sixers, on the other hand, have won 3-of-4 and there is a growing confidence about them. Having Joel Embiid does that. If a franchise is going to tank like nobody has ever tanked before through the process and struggle for a few years, it needs to come out on the other end with a franchise cornerstone player or two. Embiid, after a long wait, seems to be that guy. Ben Simmons may be as well. Hopefully, we get to find out this season and see them together. There are a lot of questions about how all the pieces fit together in Philly, there are other draft picks and prospects yet to arrive, but this feels like a team that has turned the corner and is heading in the right direction. There is a reason for hope.

2) Russell Westbrook racks up 18th triple-double of season, Thunder win again. I’ve run out of ways to praise Russell Westbrook. Remember how last season we said it was crazy how many triple-doubles he was racking up? After Wednesday, he now has 18 this season — the same number he had all of last season. The Thunder have 42 games left. Westbrook had 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists on Wednesday, and more importantly the Thunder won again, this time against a Memphis team that has been playing well of late and brings with it one of the best defenses in the NBA. There just is no defense for Westbrook.

3) We’ve got upsets: Timberwolves end Rockets win streak at 9; Trail Blazers comfortably beat Cavaliers. There were a couple other games of note, from the “good teams can’t win every game” category. For one, Minnesota was playing good enough defense, getting 28 from Andrew Wiggins, 23 from Karl-Anthony Towns, and 20 off the bench from Shabazz Muhammad. Oh, and the Timberwolves were racking up highlights.

Portland looked like a playoff team — something that hasn’t happened consistently of late — playing its best game of the season and thrashing Cleveland 102-86. The Blazers dominated this game from the start and got 27 points and another strong game from C.J. McCollum, and when the Cavaliers worked to take the ball out of his hands, Allen Crabbe stepped up with some quality playmaking. Considering the travel problems both teams had just getting to snowy Portland for this game, the Cavs can write this one off and not think about it. The Blazers (who had a harder time getting back home for this game, they landed in Seattle and took a bus) get a quality win out of it.

PBT Podcast: Who should start in All-Star Game?

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There is big news from around the league to discuss: Derrick Rose‘s future with the Knicks for one. Also, Kyle Korver is now sinking threes for the Cavaliers.

Dane Carbaugh and myself discuss those situations, but we spend most of our time on the All-Star ballot and who should be voted as starters. If Kyrie Irving is one starter in the East backcourt, who should be at the other spot? DeMar DeRozan? Isaiah Thomas? And the frontcourts of both conferences are deep — quality players are going to be snubbed even after the coaches round out the rosters.

(Note, this was recorded on Wednesday afternoon with the intention of being up earlier, but technical difficulties got in the way. Things like Rose playing against the Sixers are referenced as having yet to happen, however the information and discussion topics would be the same now or then.)

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

PBT Extra: If Derrick Rose wants to get paid next summer, it’s on him to step up now

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Derrick Rose wants a max contract next summer.

I want to spend a party-filled week in Ibiza with Margot Robbie.

These things have about the same chance of happening.

But Rose can help his case by both playing within himself and being a model citizen the rest of this season, as noted in this PBT Extra. After his AWOL experience with the Knicks, he has to prove his value. He’s not getting the max, and if a team guarantees him beyond two seasons they are fools, but what he does the rest of this season will determine a lot.

Mavericks’ Justin Anderson fined $25,000 for blow to Kris Dunn’s head (VIDEO)

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Dallas’ Justin Anderson was going or the dramatic chase-down block. Instead, he got a $25,000 fine and a flagrant 2 foul.

The play happened early in the second quarter of the Timberwolves’ win Monday night over the Mavericks. Kris Dunn had poked the ball away on a steal, got the long lead pass and was going in for the breakaway layup when Anderson tried to track him down. Anderson went up for the block but instead hit Dunn across the head, knocking him to the ground.

Dunn got up and continued to play, and at the time Anderson was given a Flagrant 1 by the officials. The league office reviewed it and made it a flagrant 2, and handed down the steep fine. The league does not mess around with blows to the head.

Aaron Gordon can defend the spot, but is he really a small forward?

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LOS ANGELES — There are nights where Aaron Gordon looks like a future All-Star at the small forward spot. Against Memphis a week ago, he dropped 30 points on 15 shots against one of the best defenses in the NBA. A few nights later coach Frank Vogel assigned Gordon to slow James Harden, and he helped hold an MVP candidate to 14 points. All season, Gordon has been impressive on defense.

However, there are far more nights such as Sunday against the Lakers, when he had the kind of game Magic fans have become entirely too familiar with this season. Gordon spent much of the game as a weak side decoy hanging out in the corner (occasionally rotating up above the break), but as a 32.6 percent three-point shooter this season the Lakers didn’t respect him in that role. Gordon is improving from deep, but he’s not a guy you fear to leave at the arc, and the Lakers did a good job of keeping an eye on him when he cut or in transition. The result was a 0-of-5 shooting night where Gordon was a non-factor in the game.

“Some games you have the opportunity to shoot 30 times, some games you have the opportunity to shoot 10. It’s the way basketball works, it finds you when it’s supposed to find you,” Gordon said postgame. “I need to do a better job seeking it out, cutting off the ball. But like I said, credit the Lakers, they had their head on a swivel and didn’t get caught too many times. It’s when you look to be more aggressive at times.”

It’s the biggest debate in Orlando this season: Is Gordon a three or a four? He had much more success last season at the power forward slot, but when Frank Vogel came to town and saw the roster he was handed — which L.A.-based ESPN personality Andy Kamenetzky accurately described as “the island of misfit toys” — he decided to move Gordon to the three, allowing him to have Serge Ibaka at the four with Nikola Vucevic/Bismack Biyombo at the five.

Gordon’s efficiency has plummeted. His greatest asset was his superior athleticism at the four — his performance at the Dunk Contest in Toronto showed that off — but the move to the three neutralizes some of that. Last season he shot 47.3 percent overall with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.1, this season those numbers have fallen to 43.2 and 50.7 percent. His PER dropped from 17 last season to a below average 13.2. Gordon has the athleticism to play the three, but not the shot.

“He has the ability to impact the game in an opportunistic way — running the floor, getting cuts, crashing the glass,” Vogel said. “The knock on him has always been his perimeter shooting, and he’s grown more and more confident every game as the season goes along, he’s been a knock-down three-point shooter. (Note, Gordon shot 36.5 percent from three in December, but that’s down to 27.6 percent in his last five games.)

“He’s doing some good things off the bounce, that’s probably the last area he needs to develop, and we’re trying to pull him along at the right pace. So we’re asking him not try and do too much there. But he as the ability to be one of those guys who just hurts you a variety of different ways.”

Does he? Gordon is certainly putting in the work — nobody is or should question his effort. After a Laker game where he admitted he came out flat and was not impactful, he was asked how he gets past it.

“It’s a little bit easier at home, you just go to the gym and shoot. On the road, I’ve got to find a gym,” which he proceeded to do.

What Gordon has the ability to do is defend on the perimeter — he’s arguably Orlando’s best perimeter defender now. NBA’s Sports VU tracking cameras show opponents shooting just 40.7 against Gordon this season. Against the Lakers he started on Nick Young and held the streaky shooter in check. After D’Angelo Russell got the Lakers off to a good offensive start with six points and a couple assists, Vogel moved Gordon on to the point guard for a stretch. Vogel tried that a couple of times during the game, but Russell was a little too quick and made good decisions with the space he got from Gordon.

“That’s the value in moving him to small forward — he’s bigger, stronger, and longer than most of the guys he’s guarding,” Vogel said. “He’s got good size to him, where if he’s guarding power forwards and doing a good job maybe he’s undersized against most of those guys. There is value with what we’re doing with him playing small forward….

“He’s got all the athleticism in the world to do it, and it’s not been about blitzing pick-and-rolls and banging in the post, but about chasing guys off screens and guarding the ball.”

That defense is why Vogel and the Magic push back against the idea of Gordon at the four — they need him at the three. They need his defense. So Vogel is just trying to be a teacher.

“Every game is an opportunity to correct, and to positive reinforce what he’s doing well…” Vogel said. “I don’t pretend to come in and give him some mind games or anything like that, in terms of the mental approach, you just try to teach, and through the teaching there are small confidences they gain, and you try to build on that. And show them they have the ability to be great in that way.”

Can Gordon be great at the three spot? No doubt he will put in the work. Maybe Gordon can develop into a three, but he would need the right guy at the four next to him — and that is not Serge Ibaka.

In the best of all possible worlds, Gordon provides Vogel versatility — play him at the three or the four depending on the matchups. But the Magic are not in that ideal world, with too many bodies at the four and five right now, Vogel is getting his best athlete run where he can.

Meaning the Gordon at small forward experiment will remain with us for a while.