76ers

Key matchups for Sixers' 5-game road trip

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Key matchups for Sixers' 5-game road trip

The Sixers are riding high at the moment.

They rallied last Friday for a 121-110 win over the Indiana Pacers at the Wells Fargo Center. It marked the Sixers’ fourth straight win, the first time they have accomplished that feat since a stretch from Dec. 29, 2013 to Jan. 4, 2014.

The victory also pushed the Sixers’ record to 5-4. That means they are above .500 for the first time since Nov. 13, 2013.

Now comes a real test. The Sixers open up a difficult five-game road trip on Tuesday night against the Utah Jazz.

How they handle this stretch could go a long way toward determining the Sixers’ standing around the league.

With that said, let’s break down a key matchup that might help determine the outcome of each game.

Sixers-Jazz (Backup centers vs. Rudy Gobert)
You had to know it was coming. You just didn’t know when.

Joel Embiid was ruled out for Tuesday’s clash in Salt Lake City for what was deemed “load management.” The big man has played in eight of the Sixers’ nine games to this point, and with a lengthy road trip on tap, he was always likely to sit out at least once.

That means the Sixers’ backup bigs such Amir Johnson and Richaun Holmes (does Jahlil Okafor even count at this point?) will have to deal with the forceful Rudy Gobert. Gobert is averaging 13.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and a league-leading 2.5 blocks per game this season. 

About the only thing the Sixers have going for them in this instance is that the Jazz’s balanced attack allows for Gobert to have a usage rate of only 17.1 percent.

Either way, good luck climbing “The Stifle Tower” without Embiid.

Sixers-Kings (T.J. McConnell vs. De’Aaron Fox)
This spot would have been reserved for a battle of lottery selections with Markelle Fultz lining up against the speedster Fox. However, the No. 1 overall pick is still sidelined with a shoulder injury.

That doesn’t mean a battle between McConnell and Fox should be any less intriguing. 

Fox has proven to be a solid contributor early on. The No. 5 overall pick leads the Kings in points (12.7) and assists (5.0). He also averages 3.7 boards a night. Despite his sagging shooting percentages (41.2 from the field and 27.3 from three-point range), the lightning-quick lefty has provided a serious spark off the bench.

McConnell will certainly be accepting of the challenge as he relishes being a stopper on defense. He has already locked horns this season with superstars John Wall, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, so Fox will be just another high-profile name on the log.

Sixers-Warriors (Ben Simmons vs. Kevin Durant)
Ordinarily, the point guard Simmons would be matched up on is two-time league MVP Stephen Curry. But shortly into his NBA career, Simmons has proven to be anything but ordinary.

The rookie is coming off his second triple-double with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the Sixers’ win over the Pacers. He also contributed three blocks and two steals.

While Simmons’ offensive ability is not at all in question, his defense will be put to the test against Durant. The supreme scorer has looked even more lethal coming off his first NBA championship. 

Durant is still pouring in the points with 25.2 a game. However, it’s his shooting percentages that have really set him apart to this point in the 2017-18 campaign. He entered Monday shooting career highs from the field (54.2 percent) and three-point range (49.2 percent).

Simmons will likely switch with Robert Covington throughout the game guarding Durant, but that would potentially mean he’ll just shift to Klay Thompson. Pick your poison.

Sixers-Clippers (Dario Saric vs. Blake Griffin)
Saric has started to find his footing after a bumpy start to the season.

But next Monday he’ll get a close look at arguably the best power forward playing the game right now.

After Chris Paul’s departure for the Houston Rockets, Griffin has completely taken over the offensive load for the Rockets. The veteran is averaging 23.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists. More importantly, his increased offensive load hasn’t affected his efficiency as Griffin is scoring at a 49.3 percent clip from the field and a career-best 42.2 percent clip from long range.

The Clippers have cooled off (5-4) after winning their first four games to start the season. Still, Griffin is a legit early-season MVP candidate, and Saric better be prepared or he could find himself on one of those infamous posters.

Sixers-Lakers (Everyone vs. Lonzo Ball)
This one doesn’t need much setup. You all know the deal by now.

It started throughout the pre-draft process when LaVar Ball continually made it known that he wanted his son to play for the Lakers. After the storied franchise selected the UCLA product at No. 2, the elder Ball proclaimed on draft night that his son would also take the team to the playoffs. 

That evoked a tweet of “crazy pills” from Simmons, as well as Embiid asking Simmons to dunk on Lonzo Ball so hard that his dad would have to come save him (see story).

The tweets only stoked the flames as LaVar Ball proceeded to say the Sixers need to get off Twitter and get in the gym. That didn’t sit too kindly with Embiid, who bluntly said on July 4, “F--- LaVar Ball” in a video, which drew a fine from the league (see story).

Things between the Sixers and the Ball family have pretty much calmed down since that point (unless you’ve checked out the Twitter account of Simmons’ sister Olivia in the recent past).

But expect the Sixers to try to go at Lonzo early and often in that game, with LaVar likely sitting courtside for a clear view of the action.

Joel Embiid renews rivalry, takes notes in 1st All-Star Game

Joel Embiid renews rivalry, takes notes in 1st All-Star Game

LOS ANGELES — Joel Embiid didn’t take home MVP honors as planned, but he leaves All-Star Weekend having made his mark on the NBA. 

While Embiid had a strong performance, he and Team Stephen fell to Team LeBron, 148-145, Sunday night.

Here are three things to know about Embiid’s first experience as an All-Star:

Hungry to make an impact
Embiid kicked off the game with a driving dunk. He drew a foul on Anthony Davis to complete the three-point play. Less than a minute later, he knocked down a jumper to score Team Stephen’s first five points.

Embiid finished with 19 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes. He shot 8-for-13 from the field and 2-for-4 from three.

While he was eager to score, he also recognized the talent of his squad. So when had the ball with just seconds left on the clock and the game on the line, he passed it off instead of trying to be the hero (even if the shot didn’t go in).

"I wanted to shoot it but I felt like I had Steph (Curry) and Klay (Thompson) on my team and (Paul George) was really pressuring me,” Embiid said. “But I felt like I had Steph and Klay on my team, so I felt like it was a better idea to pass them the ball because they’ve been doing that for years and I have a lot of respect for them, and that’s what I did.”

Embiid vs. Westbrook: Round 3
Just when it seemed like the next matchup between Embiid and Russell Westbrook would have to wait until next season, the two were crossed paths in the All-Star Game. Embiid hit a three over Westbrook and then swatted his shot (see video).

Embiid insisted it was all in good nature: “I kind of thought about staring at him and I kind of did. But you know it's all fun. I don't have anything against him. I have a lot of respect for him. He's a great competitor and I love to compete too. So I have a lot of fun playing against him.”

Westbrook, on the other hand, said he didn’t pay much mind to Embiid.

“I don’t know,” he said when asked his opinion of Embiid’s first All-Star performance. “I wasn’t really paying attention, honestly. I was paying attention to our team.”  

Let’s get the 2018-19 NBA schedule now to circle the calendars for their next meeting.

From trash talker to student
Embiid said from the time he was named a starter that he wanted to use this weekend as an opportunity to learn from his experienced teammates. And that he did. 

Check out this rundown of players on Team Stephen whose basketball know-how Embiid sought after.

“Steph, on the bench or during the game, I kind of asked him a couple questions,” Embiid said. “All the guys. (Karl-Anthony Towns) we talk a lot. Draymond (Green), of course, we talked a lot about him not being able to guard me. Of course he mentioned when we blew the lead against them, of course he had to mention that … Kyle (Lowry) was amazing. DeMar (DeRozan), always amazing. James (Harden), amazing. Al (Horford) was great; I love spending time with him. All those guys, they were great.”

Lowry was among many fellow All-Stars to appreciate Embiid’s talent so early in his career.

“(My advice is) continue to be him, and I think that’s his best trait,” Lowry said. “He’s a very hungry, humble guy, super talented, He’s just trying to figure it out and learn the game.”

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Embiid will return to Philadelphia from Los Angeles where he has one big to-do list after participating in the Rising Stars game, Skills Challenge and All-Star Game. Embiid plans to sleep.

Mitchell-Nance Jr. showdown highlights All-Star Saturday

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AP Images

Mitchell-Nance Jr. showdown highlights All-Star Saturday

LOS ANGELES — Rookie Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz put on a show in the slam dunk contest to cap off NBA All-Star Saturday.

Mitchell edged Larry Nance Jr. by two points, sealing his victory with a close approximation of the 360-degree spin dunk that Vince Carter used to win the 2000 contest.

"I wanted this so badly," Mitchell said. "This is one of my favorite events of All-Star weekend. To not only be in it, but to win it, it's crazy."

Before making his winning dunk, Mitchell peeled off his Jazz jersey and wore a vintage Carter jersey from the Toronto Raptors.

Mitchell -- three inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 Carter -- needed a score of 47 to beat Nance, and he got a 48 from the five judges: DJ Khaled, Mark Wahlberg, Chris Rock and Hall of Famers Julius Erving and Lisa Leslie.

Nance, who was trying to win the contest 34 years after his father won it, had earned a perfect 50 with a dunk off a double alley-oop off the glass.

Mitchell advanced to the finals with a creative dunk in the first round that used his sister, Jordan, as well as Kevin Hart and the comedian's son as props. For that dunk, Mitchell wore a Darrell Griffith Jazz jersey. Griffith participated in the first slam dunk contest in 1984.

"I appreciate Kevin Hart coming out there and helping me out," Mitchell said. "He's my favorite comedian."

Booker wins 3-point contest with record final round
Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns won the 3-point contest with a record 28 points in the final round. He beat 2016 champion Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and Tobias Harris of the Los Angeles Clippers.

"It feels really good," Booker said. "I wanted to go out there and make a name for myself."

Did he ever. He was sensational in the final round on Saturday, when he missed only five of 25 shots.

Each player shot five five-ball racks with a one-minute time limit. The final ball of each one was a "money ball" worth two points, and one of the racks, usually the last one, was all money balls. Booker made the money ball shot on his first four racks, and then made four of the five balls on the money ball rack.

Harris, Booker and Thompson advanced from the eight-man field to the finals. Harris scored 17 points before Booker scorched the nets for 28 points. Thompson followed and scored 25 points.

The previous record was 27 points, set by Stephen Curry in 2015 and matched by Thompson the following year.

Booker, the 21-year-old sharpshooter in his third season with Phoenix, is averaging 24.2 points per game this season as the NBA's 12th-leading scorer. Eleven months after the shooting guard dropped 70 points against Boston to become the youngest player in NBA history to score even 60 in a game, Booker added another accolade to his promising career with the 3-Point title.

Thompson beat the buzzer with his final shot of the first round to reach the finals with 19 points. Booker also scored 19 and Harris had 18.

Dinwiddie tops Markkanen in Skills Challenge final 
Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets won the skills challenge to kick off NBA All-Star Saturday.

Dinwiddie, who played at Taft High in the Woodland Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, beat Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls in the final round.

The skills competition consisted of two players going head to head. They dribbled around pylons, passed the ball into a net, dribbled to the other end of the floor for a layup and then dribbled back to the other end to take a pull-up 3-pointer.

Eight players started the competition, with Dinwiddie and Markkanen advancing to the final.

Markkanen struggled passing the ball into the net, giving Dinwiddie a big lead. Dinwiddie dribbled down the floor and missed his first 3, but drained the next one to win.